As Nation Braces For Obamacare, Mass. Tackles Health Costs

If for some reason you’re not already drowning in the rough waters of U.S. health policy — what with the Affordable Care Act’s health exchanges launching today and Congress and President Obama still duking it out over the four-year-old law upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court — well, you’re in luck. Because in the midst of all this Obamacare angst and government shutdown, our fair state this week kicks off the Oscars of health wonkdom, aka, the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission’s Annual Health Care Cost Trends Hearing.

It’s a time for state health care officials and bureaucrats to conduct a little reality check with insurers, hospitals, businesses and consumers to ensure that everyone’s making a good-faith effort to hold down medical costs.

Stuart Altman, economist and professor of National Health Policy at Brandeis University and chair of the board of the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission, says the role of the commission is to keep all of the players involved in the health system accountable and sharply focused on driving down costs while improving quality. “We’re like a big searchlight on the system to say ‘Hey this is good’ or Hey, this is not good,” and then follow up, Altman said on WBUR’s Radio Boston Monday.

Gov. Deval Patrick

Gov. Deval Patrick

Here’s a little background on the hearings, to be held at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, from the state:

The cost containment law, signed by Governor Patrick in August 2012, empowered the Health Policy Commission with monitoring health care delivery and payment system reform and developing policies to reduce overall cost growth while improving the quality of patient care. The Commission is governed by an independent board of health care experts who will use the two-day hearing to examine hospitals, insurers and provider organizations about their work to meet the new cost growth benchmark (3.6% for 2013 and 2014), improve care coordination and provide consumers with price transparency tools. Market consolidation’s impact on the Massachusetts health care system will also be a hearing focus.

If you want to get a jump on the hearings, go wild and check out the pre-filed testimony here. The governor is expected to deliver opening remarks today and Attorney General Martha Coakley is scheduled to open the hearings Wednesday.

We’ll post more during the day if news happens.

And for a taste, here’s a bit of Gov. Patrick’s prepared remarks:

Now, Massachusetts is setting the pace again, by tackling the high cost of health care.

It bears stating at the outset what this coalition knows but some in the general public do not: health care costs have not risen because of health care reform.

Premiums had been rising faster than inflation for many years before our reforms went into effect. And in many states, like Mississippi, for example, where there has been no effort to extend health care to all, premiums have risen as fast or faster than they have in Massachusetts. The relentless increase in health insurance premiums is an economic and social challenge that stands apart from the expansion of
coverage. It squeezes household, business and public budgets equally. And it was unsustainable.

Beginning in 2010, we took several steps to address this challenge. Those steps included:

–disapproving nearly all rate increases proposed by private insurers
–working with insurers and businesses to create limited network plans
–partnering with hospitals, community health centers, doctors and other providers to pioneer patient-centered medical homes.

Just three years ago, average premium increases were over 16 percent. Today, through
the push and pull of this coalition, premium increases average less than 2 percent.

That’s significant improvement. We are here today because we resolved to make that progress stick.

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