Sexual Harassment Policy, Health Care And Economy: The Week Ahead On Beacon Hill

Oct 30, 2017

Beacon Hill was jolted late last week by a column in The Boston Globe. It cited a dozen anonymous lobbyists, aides, activists and lawmakers who described sexual harassment in the State House. 

House Speaker Bob DeLeo quickly called for a review of the chamber's policies on sexual harassment -- a move backed by fellow Democrat, Representative Sarah Peake.

"Fear of repercussion or retaliation has perhaps led to some victims not wanting to come forward," she said. "That is, in many ways, as disturbing as the actual act of sexual harassment."

That official House report is due in four months, and DeLeo said it will be made public.

In the meantime, lawmakers have no shortage of other issues to tackle -- including how to respond to President Trump's decision to eliminate some health insurance subsidies.

We turn to State House reporter Matt Murphy. Matt tells me Governor Charlie Baker has a plan. November 1 marks the start of open enrollment for health insurance in Massachusetts.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: The governor is still hopeful, and is urging Congress to reach a resolution. He has spoken to and testified before Senator [Lamar] Alexander [Republican of Tennessee], and Senator [Patty] Murray [Democrat of Washington], who’ve been working on this bipartisan deal that they hope to pass, that would fund these cost sharing reduction payments that help keep costs for consumers down.

But in the meantime, the governor is looking to this multimillion-dollar fund that the Health Connector in Massachusetts controls, to at least make the payments through December. These are payments to go to insurance companies, so that insurance companies can keep the premiums and co-pays and deductibles for patients low. It’s the cost for the remaining three months that the president cut off through the end of 2017. It’s about $28 million. The governor said he intends to cover that with state funds that we already have.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: Well, not to forget, this comes after Governor Baker last June proposed a series of MassHealth reforms — which would presumably save money — and lawmakers rejected those in favor of developing their own health care proposals.

This is also one of those things that's ongoing, and it's not abundantly clear what's going to happen with MassHealth.

The Senate held a hearing last week on a major health care reform proposal they've put together. This bill deals with a lot of things, including, you know, improve telemedicine. But some of the major issues that it does is it kind of tries to compress these rates, and help community hospitals that serve a lot of these Medicaid patients get a higher rate, so that they’re on more financially stable footing, and kind of control costs of the higher-cost providers — like the Mass General hospitals of the world.

But it doesn't do a lot to address the MassHealth spending pressures that the governor wanted to address. This bill is likely to come up in the Senate for debate in early November, and then will move to the House.

In the meantime, the governor's still looking for savings in MassHealth, and part of the way that they were going to pay for MassHealth, moving it to 2018, where these new and somewhat controversial assessments on employers that the governor agreed to — hoping that he would also get the MassHealth reforms he sought — and these assessments are some of the funds that go into the Connector Trust that we just talked about, that he is going to tap, to make the cost-sharing reduction payments that the Trump Administration cut off. So all of this is kind of working together, but still very much unresolved.

MassBenchmarks, the economic journal published by the UMass Donahue Institute, reported that the state's economy jolted forward in the third quarter. Payroll employment in the second quarter grew by a 2.1 percent annual rate here in the state, compared to 1.2 percent nationally. Will the release of those numbers, coinciding with a health care debate, and closing out spending, have an impact on the fiscal year?

It could, and it probably should. It’s certainly encouraging. 

This comes, as you know — Massachusetts, over the past two years, has seen these downturns in revenue and sales taxes, and withholding taxes late in the fiscal year — usually around the spring — and this has resulted in big budget gaps. They're hoping to avoid that again this year, and so far revenues for the state have come in strong. They’re about $125 million above estimates.

But the governor has really been proceeding cautiously, and holding back a lot of spending priorities that the legislature would like to see get out there, and money get out into some of these programs and projects that they tried to fund through the budget. The governor's a little reluctant, hoping to avoid having to do a third round of mid-year budget cuts that he's had to do during his first two years in office. So the economic growth is certainly a positive sign for avoiding a similar situation in fiscal ’18.

Listen to The Week Ahead every Monday morning on New England Public Radio.