DORCHESTER, Mass. (WPRI) — Gov. Charlie Baker announced a new piece of legislation which he believes will increase access to health care and control costs for Massachusetts families.
The governor unveiled what his office described as a “comprehensive” health care package from Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester on Tuesday. He said the legislation called, “An Act Investing in the Future of Our Health,” builds on a health care bill his office filed in October 2019 “that had many similar components, goals and provisions.”
“Obviously, a few months later, the health care landscape changed dramatically, as did everything else with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Baker added.
Baker said his office was able to implement some of the reforms included in the 2019 bill, first through emergency orders, and later in partnership with the legislature through a health care reform bill he signed early last year.
“For example, that 2019 bill proposed creating a framework for people to access health care services via telehealth, which did not exist here in Massachusetts at that time,” he said.
The pandemic made telehealth a “necessity,” according to Baker. His office authorized the practice through an emergency order in March 2020, and a law the governor signed last year created a “permanent framework” for telehealth moving forward.
“But that said, there’s still a lot more work to do to improve our health care system so that it better serves our families and our communities,” Baker noted.
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Baker said that while COVID-19 was “the challenge of a lifetime” for those working in health care, Massachusetts “weathered the past two years better than most,” thanks to the state’s health care system and its workers.
“But the pandemic also cast light on some of the underlying structural problems that we identified in that legislation we filed back in 2019 that still need to be addressed,” Baker said.
He said the legislation he is filing Tuesday aims to address structural problems through three major areas of attack:
- Promote greater investments in and access to behavioral health and primary health care services
- Control the factors that drive up health care costs
- Improve access to high-quality coordinated care, with emphasized efforts on individuals with multiple issues and comorbidities
“For several years now, there’s been a consensus that we should be prioritizing mental health and treating it the same way we treat other types of medical care,” Baker explained. “And there’s broad agreement in the health care community and among our colleagues in the legislature that we should and do need to happen.”
Baker says his 2019 bill was “aimed squarely” at addressing that issue. He said the pandemic then emphasized the need to treat behavioral health care services in the same way as other health care services in terms of a person’s ability to access services and pay for them.
“As we emerge from this pandemic, we all know that too many people — young and old — are struggling with feelings of isolation, depression and despair, and too often, it’s difficult and complicated to access services that can help them,” Baker said.
The governor said his new bill would require health care providers and insurers to increase spending on primary care and behavioral health care within the context of the overall health care cost growth benchmark set by the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission (HPC).
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The bill sets a target of 30% growth in those areas over the next three years, but Baker said it also gives providers and insurers flexibility with respect to how they go about meeting the objective.
“By increasing investments in this part of the health care system, we open access to care and keep people healthier in the long term, make services that are not currently available more available, and also provide a more cost effective approach to health care, generally,” he said.
In addition, Baker said his office is taking steps to promote behavioral health parity so insurers treat behavioral health care the same as they would physical health care. He said his new legislation requires insurers to apply equal rates of reimbursement for certain behavioral health visits, whether provided by primary health care providers or licensed mental health professionals.
“There are so many issues with the way behavioral health gets treated and traditional health care gets treated that I won’t go into all of them today, except to say that some of them we did manage to fix in other bills and other legislation, and in some cases through regulation,” Baker said. “But there’s still an enormous amount of work that needs to be done here, and this bill aims at getting at those many current flaws and problems within the current system.”
Most recently, Baker said Mass. Secretary Marylou Sudders and her team have been working with providers, advocates and other stakeholders to develop and begin implementing what his office has called a “road map” for behavioral health reform.
He said the road map outlines “tangible ways” the state can increase access to behavioral health services. The governor said the FY ’23 budget, currently before the state legislature, proposes $116 million in new funding to implement the plan.
“Among other things, it would create a new centralized staff behavioral health help line, which would be available 24/7, 365 days a year to provide live support, clinical assessment and connection to the right mental health and addiction treatment provider in real time for people seeking services,” Baker explained.
The governor said the funding would also create readily available outpatient evaluation and treatment through primary care, supported by new reimbursement incentives, same-day evaluation and referral to treatment that would be offered at designated community health centers and create better access points for emergency behavioral health support instead of emergency rooms.
“The reforms we’re filing today would build on that and further promote increased access to behavioral health services in primary care, and we look forward to working with our colleagues in legislature to finish some of the work we started in 2019, and during the course of the pandemic,” Baker added.
The governor said his bill also builds in additional consumer protections to focus on high drug costs, and it creates new accountability measures for drug manufacturers who “excessively price or increase the cost of their drugs for consumers.”
“We also recognize that health insurance costs are increasingly a burden on small businesses and their employees, so we propose several reforms to ensure that the small group market and their workers have access to high quality, affordable health insurance options as well,” Baker said.
According to Baker, the bill increases access to care in a variety of ways.
“For example, the bill increases the scope of practice for certain health care professionals and removes red tape in health care licensure,” Baker said.
The governor said both are issues the state dealt with through emergency orders in the course of the pandemic, which turned out to be “enormously effective” at providing additional access to and coordination around care.
“We need legislation to make them permanent,” he added.
Baker said the goal is to allow more qualified professionals to provide care to residents while maintaining “strenuous requirements to ensure patient safety.”
“The pandemic demonstrated that while our health care system does many things very well, we still have a number of significant issues and problems we need to solve,” Baker said. “The biggest one, among many, is this whole issue of how we choose to pay for and support primary care and behavioral health services.”