Mass. Bill Requires Health Coverage

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

BOSTON, April 4 -- The Massachusetts legislature approved a bill Tuesday that would require all residents to purchase health insurance or face legal penalties, which would make this the first state to tackle the problem of incomplete medical coverage by treating patients the same way it does cars.

Gov. Mitt Romney (R) supports the proposal, which would require all uninsured adults in the state to purchase some kind of insurance policy by July 1, 2007, or face a fine. Their choices would be expanded to include a range of new and inexpensive policies -- ranging from about $250 per month to nearly free -- from private insurers subsidized by the state.

Romney said the bill, modeled on the state's policy of requiring auto insurance, is intended to end an era in which 550,000 people go without insurance and their hospital and doctor visits are paid for in part with public funds.

"We insist that everybody who drives a car has insurance," Romney said in an interview. "And cars are a lot less expensive than people."

Tuesday's votes approving the bill -- 154 to 2 in the House and 37 to 0 in the Senate -- were the culmination of two years of politicking and several months of backroom negotiations, as rival health-care plans from Romney and the two Democrat-led chambers were hammered into one.

What resulted is a proposal that health-care experts say is unlike any other in the country. What to do about the 45 million Americans without health insurance has flummoxed both the Bush administration, whose proposal for "health savings accounts" fizzled, and that of Bill Clinton, whose broad plan for health-care changes fell flat.

On the state level, Hawaii and Maine have programs that seek to offer near-universal access to health insurance, and Illinois last year approved a subsidy plan that will widely increase coverage for needy children.

But no state, experts say, has taken the step of making health insurance coverage a legal requirement. The idea was applauded by Uwe E. Reinhardt, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, who said that he has long believed that the American system of allowing uninsured patients to receive care at the government's expense was nothing more than "freedom to mooch."

"Massachusetts is the first state in America to reach full adulthood," said Reinhardt, noting that the new measure is a move toward personal responsibility. "The rest of America is still in adolescence."

As simple as the idea sounds -- buy insurance or else -- the proposal is complex and, in some cases, still unfinished. For instance, it leaves the task of determining exactly how much some low-income residents will pay for their new, more affordable policies to a new agency that would serve as a liaison between the government, policyholders and private insurance companies.

Because of that uncertainty, some still worry that the residents required to buy insurance would not be able to.

"Who defines what's affordable?" said the Rev. Hurmon Hamilton, a minister in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury and a leader in an interfaith organization that has pushed for health-care changes.

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