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JOAN VENNOCHI

Charlie Baker could lead on health care debate

Governor Charlie Baker.
Governor Charlie Baker.(Keith Bedford/Globe Staff)

GOVERNOR CHARLIE BAKER is speaking out against the national Republican effort to repeal Obamacare. But the most popular governor in America could own this issue on the national stage — if he chose to do so.

Baker has been warning that Massachusetts will lose money if a Senate health care bill, which essentially phases out Medicaid, passes and becomes law. But other Republican governors are stating the truth more bluntly: Those federal spending cuts will mostly hurt the poor, the elderly, women, and children.

Governor Brian Sandoval of Nevada said the Senate bill threatened “the folks that are most vulnerable and barely able to make ends meet . . . folks that are worth fighting for.” Casting the choice now before Republicans as one between party and country, Governor John Kasich of Ohio criticized other politicians, particularly governors, for failing to speak out against the bill. “All you hear is crickets . . . because they’re worried about upsetting their base,” said Kasich on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday morning show.

It hasn’t been crickets from Baker. But it has been classic Charlie, which means cautious, clinical, and circumspect. When the Senate bill was finally unveiled, Baker said, through a spokesperson, “This version falls short and will result in significant funding losses for this state.” He also pledged to keep working “to advocate for solutions that work for Massachusetts, including protecting our waiver to support behavioral health and fighting the opioid epidemic and funding for Planned Parenthood.”

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On one hand, no one can accuse Baker of using a national crisis to further personal political ambitions. But given his wide range of health care experience in the public and private sectors, it’s fair to argue that he has a responsibility to lead and focus the debate — even if it prompts accusations of looking past Massachusetts to Washington. Since President Trump took office, Baker has inched from writing letters to Republican lawmakers to express concern about the GOP’s national health care agenda to tweets and statements of “disappointment.” He’s also part of a bipartisan group of governors that has spoken out against the House and Senate versions of legislation designed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. And, after last week’s trip to San Diego to ask biotech companies to consider coming to Massachusetts, Baker told Politico he spent time asking executives to call their elected officials to protect federal funding for the National Institute of Health.

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Of course, the political calculation is different in Nevada or Ohio. Sandoval is working to keep Republican Senator Dean Heller as a “no” vote. In Ohio, Kasich is speaking out against the Senate bill in hopes of influencing the vote of Republican Senator Rob Portman. In Massachusetts, health insurance reform became law under Republican Governor Mitt Romney and then became the model for Obamacare. Today, the entire congressional delegation, along with Democrats who dominate the state legislature, oppose any effort to repeal the ACA. And, in Massachusetts, it’s not just Democrats who challenge what’s happening in Washington.

In an op-ed published in the Globe, Jane Swift, a former Republican governor of Massachusetts, addressed the current health care debate in very personal terms, as the mother of a child with juvenile arthritis. New Englanders, she wrote, often “take for granted the world-class care available in our backyards. That is, until your 8-year-old wakes up one day and can’t climb out of bed; until her hands hurt too much to hold a pencil; or she is forced to hang up her figure skates because she can no longer jump. That’s when we don’t take it for granted.”

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Baker made the fight against opioid addiction a signature cause and can speak very directly and emotionally about families who suffer from that scourge. That’s a small but critical part of a much larger fight to preserve health care access for the country’s most vulnerable. He has the brainpower and experience. All he needs is the outrage and the will to do battle.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.