By Lisa Hagen, Statehouse Correspondent
BOSTON — While critics complain that Obamacare, and the Massachusetts model for the federal plan involve too much government, a state senator says it is time for more government involvement in paying for health care. On Tuesday, Sen. James Eldridge, D-Acton, again proposed a single-payer system to the Committee on Health Care Financing that would eliminate private health-insurance companies and have the government reimburse doctors, hospitals, and nurses.
“As much as Massachusetts has an excellent system, it is the most expensive in the country,” Eldridge said. “When talking to constituents, they still feel the quality of care is largely controlled by companies.”
Eldridge said the single-payer system would function similar to Medicare, alleviating the burden small businesses face in providing health-care plans to employees. He said the money saved by eliminating private insurance companies can then be used to hire more nurses and primary care physicians.
Benjamin Day, director of organizing at Healthcare-NOW, an advocacy group for single-payer health care, said there is evidence from countries such as Canada, England, and France that this type of system works.
“There are measured steps legislators can take to let us learn from other countries that have this,” Day said. “They have much better cost control than we do and we can use (single-payer) as a back-up plan.”
Eldridge, a House member when the 2006 universal health-care law was passed, said Obamacare was modeled after the state’s law requiring residents to purchase health insurance. Both laws also provide subsidies to those who cannot pay their full insurance premiums.
More than 97 percent of Massachusetts residents now have health insurance, but Eldridge said the system still has a high administrative cost and requires a lot of insurance paperwork for hospitals, doctors, and consumers.
“Consumers can go to doctors and hospitals with a (government-issued) health-care card and all costs would be paid for by the government so there would be no bill in the mail,” he said.
But Daniel Foley, legislative counsel for Massachusetts Association of Health Underwriters, said the state should continue on the same track, noting the progress in both health-care coverage and cost control. He warned that single-payer systems can delay treatment for some patients.
“From a personal standpoint, I don’t want to be in situation where I need special treatment or a special doctor and to have to wait six, eight, nine months down road,” Foley said. “If I have serious situation, I want to see the specialist now.”
Even though removing third-party insurers would cut those jobs, Eldridge said that part of the bill would devote money to train these workers to become nursing assistants or other jobs within the health-care field.
“I don’t think it would negatively affect the job environment, but these people would have to be retrained for a different profession,” he said.
Eldridge is also sponsoring a bill that would enable residents to choose a public option if they were unhappy with health care from an employer. He hopes this would stimulate competition between the government and private insurance companies and encourage cost reduction and increased quality of care.
“We need a more efficient system and Massachusetts has the opportunity to remain an innovator in health care and reform,” he said.
But some of his legislative colleagues aren’t completely sold on these health-care changes.
Sen. Eileen Donoghue, D-Lowell, said in an interview that she wants to further look into the cost of converting to a single-payer system since health-care finances are an issue that impacts both individuals and small businesses. She said cost containment is one of her biggest concerns since passage of a bill aimed at holding down medical charges in 2012.
“In theory, direct pay and not having middleman seems to indicate cost savings,” Donoghue said. “Health care is taking a bite out of paychecks and small businesses, and in reality, we need to understand how the (numbers) translate.”
Rep. Marc Lombardo, R-Billerica, labeled both single-payer and public option as a “terrible idea” because it would require too much government involvement. He suggested an option that would eliminate state-mandated coverage of certain treatments to accommodate consumers’ different needs as well as allowing residents to purchase health care outside the state as a way to boost competition.
“Most people select what’s important to them, and right now they don’t have enough options,” Lombardo said. “With a mandate-light option, they can find the appropriate value they want to spend their dollars, so families who need lesser options can find a lighter plan that fits their cost needs.