Speaking to both state and national audiences, Governor Deval Patrick today defended the idea of government promoting near universal health care, even as he called on lawmakers, health care providers, and the business community to work jointly on controlling its cost.
The twin targets reflected his role both as leader of the state and a top surrogate speaker for President Obama. The Democratic president is defending his federal health care overhaul from criticism by Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee who enacted the state’s health care reforms when he preceded Patrick as Massachusetts governor.
“We started with the belief that health is a public good and that everyone – everyone—deserves access to affordable, quality care,” Patrick told several hundred business leaders attending a breakfast meeting of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
Alluding to Romney’s work in 2006 with then-Senator Edward M. Kennedy to pass the state legislation, Patrick added: “Health care reform is working in Massachusetts, and I think it’s especially important to take a minute to acknowledge that truth, since we see a lot of misrepresentation about this on the national political scene these days.”
Romney has called for a repeal of what he terms “Obamacare,” instead saying it should be up to states to devise their own health insurance programs. The president has cited Massachusetts as the model for his national program.
While 98.2 percent of the state’s population now has private or government health insurance, including 99.8 percent of children, controlling the cost of insuring those people is the focus of recently announced House and Senate bills.
Weighing in on the debate, Patrick said he will only support final legislation that controls spending, provides flexibility in how to achieve it, “accountability” for failing to do so, and makes changes to the state’s tort laws.
In particular, the governor said he would not favor any plan that allows cost increases at a percentage rate exceeding the growth of the Gross State Product. He said that limit would ensure health care costs don’t crowd out other public or private-sector spending.
The Senate has proposed a rate equal to GSP; the House has proposed GSP minus a half percent. Others have suggested GSP minus 2 percent.
“I think the industry can do better than GSP. I certainly could not imagine accepting GSP plus anything,” the governor said.
Patrick also panned the idea of creating a new quasi-independent agency like the MBTA to regulate health care costs, labeling it “a bad Massachusetts habit.”
An administration bill would give the existing state commissioner of insurance explicit factors to consider when reviewing rate increases. The House and Senate bills have proposed new state agencies.
“There are a whole host of different touch points for the health care industry across state government. I would support consolidating what we have under one umbrella, and sharpening the mission,” said the governor.
On the subject of tort reform, Patrick, an attorney by trade, was vague. “I don’t think I need to say much about this because I think everyone is in agreement that we need it in this bill,” he said.
James Roosevelt Jr., president of Tufts Health Plan, labeled the governor’s proposals “a very positive, balanced approach.”
He said the next six weeks—as the House and Senate bills are debated—are “very critical” to the state, since they will determine the long-term cost of health insurance. Massachusetts families previously had the highest premiums in the country; now they rank ninth.
“By bringing that under control, businesses notice that,” said Roosevelt. “If we can sustain that, it will help current businesses and ones that are considering moving into the state.”
More broadly, the governor defended the notion of government intervention in the health care marketplace.
Obama has had to fend off accusations that his federal plan, modeled after the Massachusetts law, amounts to socialized medicine.
Patrick expressly said, “I am a capitalist,” but the former corporate legal counsel added: “I am not a market-fundamentalist.”
He added: “I am not interested in government intervention for the sake of government intervention. I am interested in completing the vision of health care in Massachusetts: accessible, high quality, affordable care for everyone. That is the public’s interest, and government’s job is to serve the public’s interest.”
Patrick said cost control has propelled by his administration’s opposition to premium increases, which has helped spur creation of limited network plans and small business co-ops.
Resurrecting Obama’s 2008 campaign theme, Patrick told the business leaders, “The point is: We can solve problems when we hope – yes, hope – for the best and then work for it.”
Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.