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Mass. Senate leaders plan another run at curbing health care costs

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg.
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg. Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

Massachusetts Senate leaders said Tuesday that they want to draft new legislation to tackle rising health costs, conceding that current efforts have not done enough.

The state passed a law in 2012 aimed at curbing medical spending, but Senate majority leader Harriette Chandler told reporters that it “obviously isn’t successful if we’re [still] looking for ways to contain these costs.”

“We’re likely to see legislation” in the next session, which begins in January, Chandler said.

Senate leaders did not say what a new bill may include. “We’re still trying to assess various strategies,” Senate President Stanley Rosenberg said.

Chandler and Rosenberg are among seven senators who will travel to Minnesota this week to study its health system, which experts say provides high-quality and cost-efficient care. The trip, funded by a private foundation, is the beginning of a “research project” by the senators to learn how other states have approached health policy. In coming months, the lawmakers may visit additional states or invite experts to meet with them in Massachusetts.

About a dozen people, including aides and administration officials, will make the two-day trip, which is financed by the Milbank Memorial Fund, a private New York-based foundation that seeks to educate legislators in health policy.

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Massachusetts is considered a leader in health care for its highly ranked teaching hospitals and near universal access to insurance coverage. But costs here are among the highest in the nation. Spending on medical care in Massachusetts grew more than 4 percent annually in 2015 and 2014. That exceeded a goal of keeping increases to 3.6 percent, a benchmark established in the 2012 law.

That law, known as Chapter 224, also created two new agencies, the Health Policy Commission and the Center for Health Information and Analysis, to track health care market activity and spending.

“When you see the kinds of numbers we’re beginning to see here in Massachusetts… It’s getting a little out of hand,” Chandler said. “We’re getting back at an acceleration point that is really requiring us to think about what can we learn from other states. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here.”

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John E. McDonough, professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said lawmakers are right to stay focused on the issue.

“It’s not too early to start assessing,” he said. “We’ve had the Health Policy Commission now for three years, and maybe it’s time to kick the tires on it and see how it’s doing and say, ‘Are there additional things we could be doing?’”

Lynn Nicholas, president of the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, said by e-mail that the hospital industry is open to hearing ideas that other states have used to tackle costs.

But she said “it’s important to note that Chapter 224 has not yet reached its full potential but is working in many respects. The hospital cost trend overall is well below the benchmark, but areas that caused the state to miss the mark, like the growing costs of pharmaceuticals, should be examined.”

The Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, which represents insurers, also said drug spending deserves attention. “State reports have shown that increases in prices that providers charge and the cost of prescription drugs are the major reasons health care costs continue to rise and our hope is that any legislation to contain costs start there,” senior vice president Eric Linzer said by e-mail.

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Spending on prescription drugs increased 10.2 percent in 2015 after rising 13.5 percent in 2014, according to state data.

Senator James Welch, who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing, cautioned that progress in controlling spending could take time.

“Any changes you make to health care law are not things you’re going to see realistic savings after two years,” he said. “If you’re really talking about trying to take substantial cost out of the system, we’re talking about potentially five, 10 years, decades down the road.”


Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.