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Health bill momentum slows at State House

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

A sweeping health care bill that aims to control the rising costs of medical care and prescription drugs sailed through the Massachusetts Senate, but it could be months before the measure moves forward.

The overwhelmingly Democratic Senate approved the bill by a 33-6 margin at midnight Thursday after two days of debate and much last-minute wrangling over the language. Health care industry groups remain concerned about some of its provisions.

The bill’s drafters argued that it will help curb costs for consumers and the state budget, while improving patient care.

“Many of the issues we’re addressing here have gone unaddressed for a long time, and we just don’t have the ability to kick the can down the road anymore,” said Senator James T. Welch, a West Springfield Democrat and lead author of the bill.


But momentum on the legislation now slows, as lawmakers will be on break for much of the next several weeks and House leaders have not specified when they plan to take up the measure.

The bill also would need approval from Governor Charlie Baker before it can become law. Baker this week said the effort fell short because it would do nothing to help the state deal with a significant challenge: the rising costs of the state Medicaid program, called MassHealth.

The Senate approved several measures requiring pharmaceutical companies to submit to scrutiny from state officials.

Senators adopted an amendment late Thursday that requires drug companies to provide even more detailed information about drug prices than in the original bill, drawing a rebuke from a big pharmaceutical industry trade group.

“We are deeply troubled that the Senate has adopted such a harmful amendment,” said Caitlin Carroll, spokeswoman for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA.

“Unfortunately, [the bill] no longer adheres to the goals of affordability, access and collaboration, and we can no longer support this bill,” she said in a statement.


Opponents and skeptics of the Senate effort say now is not the time for sweeping health care legislation, given the ongoing uncertainty around health care in Washington and the fact that Massachusetts passed a health care cost control bill in 2012.

Senate Republicans also criticized the legislation for creating too much “bureaucracy” and for failing to seriously deal with the growing MassHealth budget.

The 100-page bill attempts to help struggling community hospitals by setting a floor for the reimbursements they receive from insurers. It also sets a benchmark for annual growth in hospital spending, estimated at 2.7 percent. If the hospital industry exceeds that benchmark, some hospitals would have to pay hefty penalties.

The idea of the penalties drew strong objections from the hospital industry, particularly the state’s largest health system, Partners HealthCare. Partners executives said their two biggest medical centers, Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s, would be fined unfairly under the measure.

The bill originally allowed for penalties against just three hospitals where spending is highest, but late Thursday, senators amended the language to provide for more flexibility. The amended bill would not limit the fines to just three hospitals.

“We heard what Partners said,” Welch said.

The Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association also had raised objections about the penalties.

Partners and the hospital association both declined to comment Friday, saying they were still reviewing the details of the final bill.


The Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, which represents insurers, said it worried that the bill could encourage many hospitals to spend more, not less, if only some hospitals were subject to penalties. The group said Friday that it looks forward to working with legislators to “refine” the language in the bill.

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg said the bill takes a “market-driven approach” to addressing price disparities among different hospitals. “We’re asking the market to correct itself,” he said.

Senators also approved a measure to study a single-payer health care system, a nod to the more liberal members of the chamber.

The wide-ranging Senate bill includes many other provisions spanning MassHealth and the commercial health insurance market. Senate leaders predict that in 2020, the legislation would save an estimated $114 million in MassHealth, part of an overall savings in the health system of up to $525 million.

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey @globe.com.