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Patrick signs health care cost containment bill

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press / August 6, 2012
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BOSTON—Gov. Deval Patrick on Monday signed into law a bill he said should provide a model for a nation trying to stem the spiraling cost of health care.

The Democrat was joined by lawmakers, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and health care advocates as he signed the bill at a Statehouse ceremony.

Patrick praised the state's recent efforts to expand access to health coverage, adding that the new law will build off of the 2006 landmark health care law signed by then-Gov. Mitt Romney that became the model for the federal law signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama.

Patrick said the new law will mark the "next big step forward" in the state's health care system and represents the link between improved care and lower costs. Massachusetts already has the highest percent of insured residents of any state in the country at about 98 percent, according to the administration.

"Massachusetts has been a model for the nation for access to health care," Patrick said before signing the bill. "Today we become the first to crack the code on costs."

The legislation aims to control health care costs that have continued to grow following the 2006 law, which requires nearly all residents to have health insurance coverage.

The bill is intended to save Massachusetts up to $200 billion in health care costs over the next 15 years by encouraging the creation of "accountable care organizations" that take a more coordinated approach to medicine. It's also designed to give residents better access to their medical records and cut down on unnecessary testing.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, who has focused on what she calls the dysfunction in the health care market brought on in part by the disparity in hospital costs, said she was "pretty happy with this bill."

She said that there is still dysfunction in the health care market, but the new law provides her office with more oversight tools.

"We're not trying to overregulate (the market), we're trying to find that sweet spot," she said. "We're going to continue our watchdog role."

The bill's provision for accountable care organizations is considered critical to the transition from a more piecemeal approach to medical care, in which doctors are paid for each test or procedure, toward a system focused on the best way to maintain a patient's overall health.

The bill also expands the role of physician assistants and nurse practitioners to act as primary care providers and creates a new "wellness tax credit" for businesses that adopt programs to combat preventable chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and asthma.

The legislation includes $135 million in grants to help community hospitals adopt electronic medical records systems.

The bill also seeks to control medical malpractice costs by creating a 182-day "cooling off" period to give both sides a chance to negotiate a settlement, and bans mandatory overtime for hospital nurses except in emergency situations.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said the fact that lawmakers from both branches were able to agree on the details of such a complex bill shows that Massachusetts is serious about leading the nation in crafting a broad, and fiscally sustainable health care system.

"Today is the day to take note of the progress we are making," DeLeo said.

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Associated Press writer Shannon Young contributed to this report.

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