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Gubernatorial candidates sound off on mental health

Tom Ashbrook (second from right) moderated gubernatorial candidates Steve Grossman (left), Martha Coakley, Donald Berwick, and Charlie Baker.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Tom Ashbrook (second from right) moderated gubernatorial candidates Steve Grossman (left), Martha Coakley, Donald Berwick, and Charlie Baker.

Four gubernatorial candidates vowed during a forum on Wednesday night to fight for better mental health services in Massachusetts if elected to the corner office in November.

But the candidates — Republican Charlie Baker and Democrats Donald Berwick, Martha Coakley, and Steve Grossman — at times had to defend their records during pointed questioning at the event, which was held at the Back Bay Events Center in Boston and sponsored by the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology.

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The moderator, WBUR radio host Tom Ashbrook, noted that Coakley, the state’s attorney general, ruled last year that a referendum to repeal the state’s casino law was unconstitutional and could not go on the November ballot, a decision that the state’s highest court recently reversed. Coakley has repeatedly defended her decision, saying it was based on legal grounds.

Ashbrook asked Coakley if the economic benefits of casinos would outweigh the accompanying mental health problems, such as gambling addiction.

“I don’t think any of us on this stage know,” Coakley said, adding that she does not believe casinos are “where we should have gone for economic development.” She said her office had worked to ensure the casino law included provisions to mitigate social costs of expanded gaming in Massachusetts.

Grossman, the state treasurer, was pressed about his support for expanded gaming.

He acknowledged that addiction issues tied to casinos are serious, but said that “there’s a huge amount of damage to being unemployed.” He trumpeted the jobs that casinos would provide to workers in the building trades, many of whom have struggled to find employment in recent years.

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While questioning Berwick, the former head of the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs, Ashbrook noted that he stepped down from the post he was given during a congressional recess when it became clear that Senate Republicans would not later confirm his appointment.

He asked Berwick how he could push his bold policy priorities past opponents as governor — including a single-payer health system — if he was unable to win over the GOP in Washington.

“The Republicans threw me out,” Berwick said. “I stayed absolutely as long as I possibly could.”

Baker, a former chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care,was asked if he achieved mental health parity, meaning equal coverage for mental and physical ailments, when he led the insurer.

“Do I think we were perfect? No,” Baker said. “But do I think we were as good or better than anyone else in Massachusetts? Yes.” During the forum, the candidates did not question each other or engage in debate.

Among the proposals most or all of them backed were insurance parity, better compensation for mental health providers, and sentencing reform for nonviolent criminal offenders who struggle with psychological issues including addiction.

Some candidates drew the attention of the crowd of more than 100 people with proposals that set them apart.

Berwick was the lone advocate for a single-payer health care system in Massachusetts, though Grossman said he would be willing to consider whether it could be implemented. The treasurer also pledged to issue an executive order as governor halting the construction of new prisons. Coakley pushed for creating a specialized team in the state’s embattled Department of Children and Families for children who have suffered abuse.

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com.
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