Tags: affordability

Massachusetts policymakers can rightly be proud that a once-pressing health care problem, a lack of health insurance coverage for hundreds of thousands of people, has been virtually eliminated. Ten years after the state passed legislation designed to increase health insurance coverage, the percentage of Massachusetts residents with insurance is now at more than 97 percent, according to figures released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau. That figure is the lowest-ever in Massachusetts and less than a third of the national percentage.

Now, with state officials focused on a different pressing issue, health care costs, it is important to remember that change does and should come slowly in a highly complex system like health care where the consequences of government action, for good or ill, may take years to see.

Consider that universal health care, which Massachusetts worked so hard to achieve, is also a driver of increased costs.  Additionally, research dollars that come into the state also add to total health care spending.  Partners HealthCare institutions alone bring in $1.4 billion in research spending annually, creating thousands of direct jobs, tens of thousands of indirect jobs and dozens of start-up companies.  Another cost driver is the state’s large number of top-caliber medical students and residents who, in addition to their economic impact, are responsible for the top-quality care that Massachusetts residents enjoy year after year, decade after decade.

Obviously, these are all net benefits to Massachusetts that no one would intentionally harm, but in our laudable and necessary efforts to hold down health care costs, we need to be mindful of the law of unintended consequences.

That’s especially the case when one considers the true size of the problem.  Indexed against personal income in the state, Massachusetts health care costs are in the bottom 10 percent of the country.  When family health insurance premiums are indexed against income, the state ranks 49th out of 51 in health care costs.  More good news came last week when the state’s Center for Health Information and Analysis reported that health care spending rose only 3.9 percent last year --  a drop from the previous year and a rate that matches the state’s economic growth.

To be sure, the cost of health care, especially for individuals and small businesses, is a problem that needs to be addressed, and Partners will continue to be a leader in controlling costs through the federal Pioneer Accountable Care Organization (ACO) and other initiatives designed to better coordinate care for complex medical cases, which represent a disproportionate share of health care costs.

But let’s make sure our fix for today’s issue doesn’t end up hurting Massachusetts in the long term. Let’s make sure that, like universal insurance, our next health care milestone is a positive model for the rest of the nation to follow.

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