The Latest News from Massachusetts

Obama comes to talk about energy, not health care

It is surprising, as The Washington Post noted Friday, that President Obama paid a political visit to help Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick but not to talk about health reform. He came to MIT for a chat about energy—kind of an odd topic at this moment in the Bay State, given that the health plan he and his fellow Dems are trying to push through Congress is the Massachusetts plan sans public option. The individual mandate requiring every U.S. citizen to carry health insurance, penalties to make them buy coverage, the lack of serious cost containment measures, and the government brokerage service (called an Exchange instead of the Connector) are all there. But the Massachusetts plan has run into some troubles under Patrick’s watch, and maybe linking his plan with the governor wouldn’t have been a smart thing to do.

The Post pointed out that Obama often travels to New England and every week talks about health care, but he has not held a single event focusing on Massachusetts reform. “By contrast,” the Post reported, “the White House has staged presidential appearances in Wisconsin, Ohio and Minnesota to spotlight innovative models.” In those places, he touted big health systems like the Cleveland Clinic, but maybe it would not have been politic to tout Partners Health Care System after the Boston Globe revealed how Partners and Blue Cross Blue Shield teamed up to keep health insurance premiums sky high in the state.

The rest of the Post story was a tired rehash of positives that the national press has passed along uncritically—the program is popular, 97 percent of the people have insurance (the number is dropping)—and it continued the sniping between the Cato Institute’s Michael Cannon and MIT’s Jonathan Gruber, the media’s go-to guys when it wants to do a “he said she said” segment on some aspect of the Massachusetts law. “The president’s silence about the Massachusetts health plan is deafening,” said Cannon.

Indeed, stories that came out of Massachusetts after the president’s visit noted that he talked mostly about energy. The New York Times story did not mention the words health care, but said the president gave a “wide-ranging speech on energy and the environment.” The Globe told how the president praised Patrick, saying the governor “should get credit for implementing universal health care, investing in education, and making a priority of the alternative energy and biotech industries.”

Perhaps the president was not interested in calling attention to the shortcomings in the Massachusetts plan, or the warnings they signal for a national program based on that model—all of which Campaign Desk has chronicled over the last several months. Perhaps the president was not interested in having anyone ask about the other news coming from the state last week. On October 21, State House News reporter Kyle Cheney reported that:

Although state leaders have bristled at the pointed, dismissive and sometimes downright false claims made about the Massachusetts health care system by outsiders, they have said little about the dissent from within.

Cheney reported that one-quarter of the Massachusetts legislature has signed on to a proposal to “scrap the state’s landmark health care system.” Proponents are mostly liberals, but groups such as the League of Women Voters and the National Association of Social Workers have voiced support. Their proposal would set up a health care trust that would reimburse providers, invest in health care facilities, streamline the bureaucracy, and promote incentives for quality care. All residents and non-residents working twenty hours a week in the state would be eligible for care. Sponsors say that the trust would be funded by a dedicated tax on employers, workers, and citizens that would replace the money currently spent on insurance premiums. The lack of a dedicated tax threatens the long-term viability of the state’s reform law.

Such a proposal isn’t likely to pass this year, and maybe not even next or the year after, but it shows that all is not as it seems with reform in Massachusetts. Even if the pols don’t want to talk about that, the national press should.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.