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WGBH: Mass. House Health-Care Move Pits Baker Against Business

April 12, 2017

Expect a fight on Beacon Hill this year when business groups and employer lobbies attempt to beat back Gov. Charlie Baker's plans to rescue the state budget from runaway Medicaid spending.

In the budget plan approved Monday, the House's budget committee, Speaker DeLeo and  House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian Dempsey grant Baker's administration the authority to pursue an assessment on employers that don't provide health insurance. MassHealth, the state's Medicaid program, has been inundated with workers who enroll in state-subsidized plans instead of using insurance offered by their employer. Baker's plan, set out in his initial budget proposal made earlier this year, would penalize employers $2,000 per worker for not offering enough insurance to workers.

The House's decision to hand Baker the responsibility to look into the assessment comes with a catch: before they can set up a penalty system, the administration, under revenue commissioner Michael Heffernan, will be required to hold hearings to wade through some of the problems the business community has with Baker's idea. The hearing process could expose a conflict between an administration looking to alleviate MassHealth's burden and a business community that is reluctant to see broad penalties applied to job-creators.

Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce President Jim Rooney called the House's delay of a health insurance assessment "a step in  the right direction."

"The bottom line, in terms of what the house did, is it allows for the revenue department and others in the administration and the business community to spend some time trying to come up with a thoughtful form of assessment that is aimed at the stated problem," Rooney said.

The Chamber and other business organizations were critical of Baker's plan because they felt the penalty fee would be imposed too broadly and fail to target only employers failing to offer coverage to employees who then sign up for state subsidized care.

"Everybody understands that there's an issues here and somebody has to find a solution," Chris Geehern, a vice president at Associated Industries of Massachusetts told WGBH News.

Rooney said the hearing process proposed by the House budget writers will give policymakers time to consider features of the assessment plan he thinks could be clearer, like strengthening exemptions to the rules in situations where a worker isn't on their employer's insurance because of coverage under a spouse's plan.

Rooney also wants hearings to clarify the Department of Revenue authority over assessments and how much resulting revenue will flow to the state because of it.

A spokeswoman for Heffernan and the Department of Revenue declined to be interviewed for this story.

For Rooney and the Chamber, the next step is to convince the Senate's budget writers to also embrace the House plan to delay placing any penalties on employers when they release their version of the budget in the coming weeks.

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