Vol. XX, No. 4, Fall 2012


New Healthcare Bill Saves Billions, Much Of It To Aid Small Business

By Senate President Therese Murray
In my five years as Senate President, I have prioritized action on healthcare costs and access, and I’m proud to report that legislation we passed this summer will save the Commonwealth $200 billion over the next 15 years. This legislation will lower costs while improving the quality of care and increasing the transparency and accountability of the state’s entire healthcare system.

This is a bill that we have spent years working on to make sure that we did it right and the Retailers Association of Massachusetts has called it “the most important win of the year for consumers and Main Street.”

This bill comes at a crucial time as health spending is projected to double from 2009 to 2020, outpacing both inflation and growth in the overall economy. Despite recent successes in bringing down premiums in some cases, Massachusetts residents and businesses continue to struggle with increasing premiums and other healthcare costs.

Since we passed Healthcare Reform and became a model for the country, we have been working toward this moment. Legislators, healthcare providers, business owners and consumers came together to make this happen. With this bill, we are once again showing the nation that shared concerns and a willingness to work together can provide answers.

This bill will reel in healthcare costs, removing a major roadblock to long-term job growth and allowing essential investments in education and transportation without harming our number one industry or patient care. Of the $200 billion in savings over the next 15 years, most will accrue to businesses.

This will mean a greater ability to hire workers, keep good employee benefit packages and compete in a national and international marketplace. These savings will accumulate over time, but the bill also includes a number of provisions that will help businesses right away.

One is a significant reform of the current Fair Share Assessment that was authorized in the original healthcare reform law. It required businesses with 11 or more employees to either offer them good healthcare coverage or pay a modest annual fee.

Unfortunately, the administration of this assessment became a significant burden on small businesses. But our new bill makes two very important changes to ease the pressure.

First, the bill removes the current regulation that actually punished businesses if their employees obtained healthcare coverage through another source, such as a spouse’s coverage or veterans’ healthcare. That’s no longer the case.

Secondly, the bill increases the minimum threshold of small businesses from 11 to 21 employees. This removes a barrier for those very small businesses and allows them to grow and add jobs.

This legislation also expands opportunities for businesses to implement employee wellness programs. Whether businesses obtain coverage through health purchasing co-operatives, through the Commonwealth Connector or on their own, the bill includes a number of tax credits or premium subsidies where appropriate. These programs are proven not only to reduce healthcare costs, but also improve employee morale.

(Senator Therese Murray is president of the Massachusetts Senate and represents the Plymouth and Barnstable District.)

We’re Fighting Obesity Here At Home With A Carrot-And-Zucchini Approach

By Senator Dan Wolf
When it comes to improving the health of our kids, we’re learning that the carrot-and-stick approach is not always best; the carrot-and-zucchini approach is better.

That’s the thought behind a statewide Farm to School program that has shown remarkable success since its inception in 2004. At latest count, more than 217 school districts around Massachusetts have offered locally grown food to their students at some point during the school year. That includes Cape and Islands schools from Bourne, Mashpee and Barnstable to Provincetown, Edgartown and Tisbury to Harwich and Orleans, charter schools and private schools.

The Cape’s smallest town, Truro, has been setting a big example, led in part by Truro resident and artist Francie Randolph, the founding director of Sustainable CAPE, the acronym standing for “Cape Agricultural Preservation and Education.”

Francie and her group have been connecting some very important dots, bringing healthier food into the school system while at the same time engaging kids in farms and farming.

“We’re actually growing snacks for the kids, and the kids are helping grow them for themselves,” Ms. Randolph says. “That makes it fun, the kids are interested in it, and next thing you know, they’re munching on kale instead of chips–because they helped harvest that kale!”
Working with the town recreation department, Truro created an “all kids garden” behind the public library. Tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, lettuces, zucchini, and pumpkin for pumpkin bread have emerged. Come harvest, kids get treats to eat and snack-packs to take home. And at times the garden has been so successful the school cafeteria has benefited from its small bounty. A “local lunch” series has featured everything from chicken and eggs to potatoes to cranberries. School trips have brought students to meet growers on land and on the flats. 

This kind of grassroots effort can make a profound difference in the health of our children. Fighting obesity and early onset diabetes really is a battle for the hearts and minds of our families, a matter of lifestyle and values more than prescriptions and medication. Making it fun to eat well, educating everyone about how food makes it to our tables and how cool it is to be a grower, will accomplish far more than warnings and wagging fingers.

And there’s an even broader connection: This kind of initiative and thinking is key to making our communities healthier in many other ways. For example, grow fresh and grow local has an equivalent in energy because smaller scale solar and wind projects are a much better alternative than nuclear power or foreign oil. There’s a financial analogy as well. Relying on local banks and lending institutions is far preferable to allowing large corporations to control our economy.

So, hats off to everyone in the Farm to School movement, who are focused on carrots rather than sticks. From the State House to the greenhouse, we’ll do our best to support the movement.

(Senator Wolf, D-Cape & Islands, is co-chair of the Labor and Workforce Development Committee.)

New Restroom Access Bill An Example Of How Awareness Can Lead To Action

By Representative Cleon H. Turner
Where legislatures around the nation at all levels are concerned, it seems as if every month is a “month” and sometimes many months. The purpose, of course, is to make people aware of the particular designated issue.

November for some reason seems to be overwhelmingly “aware” as it is cited as recognition month for no less than 14 different medical or medically related issues.

So, in addition to recognizing such matters as Adoption Awareness, American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage, Runaway Prevention, November also is Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis Awareness Month. And this was one case where awareness did lead to action.

Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis are co-awared because both are inflammatory bowel diseases caused by immune system problems with similar symptoms and treatments. The causes of these illnesses are unknown but attacks in those afflicted can be triggered by certain foods, diet and stress.

Because attacks can occur unexpectedly and at random times, people with this disease often find themselves in situations that may be stressful or embarrassing.

Similar to Crohn’s, which usually strikes between the ages of 15 and 53, ulcerative colitis usually peaks between 15 to 30 and then again between 50 and 70.

The main symptoms of Crohn’s disease include severe cramps, fever, fatigue, appetite loss, rectal pain, persistent diarrhea, and dramatic weight loss. Additional distinct symptoms for ulcerative colitis are loud abdominal sounds and bloody stools.

Now, what does all this matter to the legislature despite the “awareness” factor?

Well, sufferers from these conditions often find themselves in embarrassing situations while out in public.

And this was recognized on Beacon Hill recently when House Bill 2366, “An act relative to public access to private restrooms,” was filed by Representative Louis Kafka (D-Stoughton). It was filed on behalf of a young girl from Sharon with an intestinal disorder who found herself in these uncomfortable and embarrassing situations while in public. Passed by both the House and the Senate earlier this term, the bill requires Massachusetts retailers and restaurants to open their private bathrooms to sufferers of inflammatory bowel diseases. If they do not, or if they turn somebody away, they will be slapped with a $100 fine.

The law specifically, applies to people with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis or any other medical condition requiring immediate access to a bathroom, as well as those who wear ostomy bags. It has been dubbed the “Restroom Access Bill,” and was amended to address retailers’ concerns, mainly so that it applies only to stores with at least two people working and relieves retailers from liability. In addition to Massachusetts, 12 other states have passed similar “Restroom Access Bills.”

(Representative Turner, D-Brewster/Dennis/Yarmouth, was a long-time member of the Legislature’s Joint Public Health Committee; www.repcleonturner.com for further updates.)