Mass. cuts its health coverage by $115m

By Kay Lazar of the Boston Globe

Overseers of Massachusetts’ trailblazing healthcare program made their first cuts yesterday, trimming $115 million, or 12 percent, from Commonwealth Care, which subsidizes premiums for needy residents and is the centerpiece of the 2006 law.

The board of the Connector Authority made the cuts as officials confronted two side effects of the recession: the state budget crisis and a surge in enrollment by the recently unemployed.

The largest share of the savings will come from slowing enrollment. An estimated 18,000 poor residents who qualify for full subsidies, but who forget to designate a health plan, will no longer be automatically assigned a plan and enrolled and thus could face delays in getting care.

Savings will also come from eliminating dental coverage for the poorest residents enrolled in Commonwealth Care, roughly 92,000 people who currently are the only ones in the program who receive that care. This $10 million cut was included in Governor Deval Patrick’s revised budget proposal, but then was restored in the budget lawmakers approved last week. It now falls to the governor to decide the program’s fate.

Also hanging in the balance is the health insurance status of 28,000 legal immigrants whose Commonwealth Care coverage was dropped in the budget lawmakers approved for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Patrick has until Monday to decide whether to veto any of that budget, which set aside $116 million less for Commonwealth Care than he proposed.

“No decision has been made’’ on restoring immigrant coverage, said Leslie Kirwan, chairwoman of the Connector Authority board and Patrick’s secretary of administration and finance. “It’s certainly going to be at the top of our list’’ of items the governor is considering adding back to the budget, she said.

But Kirwan said the $115 million in cuts the Connector Authority board approved yesterday were merely to deal with shrinking state revenues and the rapid growth in enrollment in Commonwealth Care, which has 177,000 members and was projected to grow to 212,000 in the next year.

These cuts do not provide any wiggle room for adding back the 28,000 immigrants who are facing elimination. If the governor decides to restore coverage for the immigrants, Kirwan said, he would have to find other areas to cut in the already razor-thin budget.

Patrick Holland, the Connector Authority’s chief financial officer, said enrollment spiked during the last three months, from 165,000 to nearly 177,000 members, because so many workers are losing their jobs and, with that, employer-provided health insurance.

The progress of the Massachusetts healthcare initiative is being closely watched in Washington, where Congress is crafting national legislation to extend coverage to more Americans. The Massachusetts law, cited as one model in the national debate, requires nearly everyone to have health insurance or pay a tax penalty.