Universal Health Care Bill Passes

Individuals, businesses face fines and tax penalties if they resist buying insurance

The Massachusetts state legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill yesterday that would provide health insurance for nearly all citizens of the commonwealth. The vote makes Massachusetts the first state in the nation to approve such a comprehensive proposal, which comes close to achieving universal coverage.

“It is a tremendous step compared to what other states are doing,” said the former Massachusetts health commissioner, Howard K. Koh, now a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.

The bill aims to cover over 500,000 uninsured individuals in the state within the next three years. It requires about $125 million each year in new state spending.

Under the plan, uninsured Massachusetts citizens who can afford health coverage must buy it—or face tax penalties that could amount to $1,000 a year. Businesses with more than 10 workers that do not provide insurance to their workers will be slapped with a $295-per-employee charge.

The plan “will not be instantly positive for everyone,” said Professor of Health Policy and Management Robert J. Blendon, referring to the fines levied by the legislation.

But citizens who are too poor to buy insurance themselves will get a huge boost. For instance, single adults making under $9,500 a year will have health care coverage without premiums or deductibles.

Democratic and Republican student leaders alike lauded the legislation.

“This is a happy day for the working people of Massachusetts, and everyone who struggles to pay health care bills for their family,” according to Eric P. Lesser ’07, president of the Harvard College Democrats. “Relief is on the way.”

His counterpart, Harvard Republican Club President Stephen E. Dewey ’07, wrote in an e-mail: “This is a well-thought-out compromise that accomplishes a lot of good with a minimum of intervention.”

As for whether the bill will directly impact Harvard students and staff financially, Koh said “it is too early to tell.” But his colleague Blendon said that “the “biggest thing for Harvard” in the bill would be the up-close glimpse that students will get of a pioneering plan.

“We will have a state that is further along than any other state in the country,” Blendon said.

“I think most people will see this as a turning point, in a sense that for the last 10 years, there was a sense that nothing could be done in this country in terms of coverage,” Blendon said.

Partisan politics didn’t derail the proposal, even though the state’s governor, Mitt Romney, who earned law and business degrees from Harvard in 1974, is a Republican, and the legislature is controlled by Democrats.

Unanimously approved in the Senate and passed on a 154-2 vote in the House, the legislation now awaits Romney’s signature. A Romney spokesman said yesterday that the governor will sign the bill.

“This is essentially a not-perfect bill but almost a political miracle in today’s climate,” said Blendon.

The governor has the power to veto individual elements of the bill, including the provision fining businesses that fail to insure their workers.

This is not the first time that Massachusetts has sought to provide health care to all. Then-Governor Michael Dukakis, also a Harvard Law School graduate, signed a so-called universal health law in April 1988, declaring that “the deed is done.” But by the mid-1990s, elements of that law had been repealed to weaken its impact, and the number of uninsured Massachusetts citizens increased.

—Material from the Associated Press was used in the writing of this story.

—Joyce Y. Zhang contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Madeline W. LIssner can be reached at mlissner@fas.harvard.edu.