The COVID threat persists. Inflation drives up medical costs. Staff shortages threaten access to health care.
The next governor of Massachusetts will face these challenges and more.
Democrat Maura Healey has targeted health care costs from her earliest days as attorney general in 2015. She played a role in slowing the growth of the state’s largest and most expensive health care system , Mass General Brigham. Healey authorized the large hospital merger that created Beth Israel Lahey Health, but only after the hospitals agreed to cap their prices for seven years.
Diehl, a former state lawmaker, says Healey hasn’t done enough to protect consumers from high costs, while Healey accuses Diehl of fighting for policies that would increase costs and hurt Massachusetts residents. She cites her past opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which Healey fought to preserve.
So how would the candidates approach health care and its many challenges as governor? Here is what they told WBUR:
Make care more affordable
The vast majority of Massachusetts residents have health insurance, but 41% struggled to pay for health care last year, according to a state survey.
Both Healey and Diehl say they want to make care more affordable. Healey says she would do this through greater accountability and oversight of the health care industry, although she did not specify how.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in health care over the past eight years, and there are certainly a number of challenges,” Healey told reporters during a recent campaign stop at the school. nurses from UMass Boston. “One is affordability. We don’t have accessibility if we don’t have affordable health care.
Diehl’s campaign manager, Amanda Orlando, said he wanted to give consumers more information and more choice of health insurance plans and hospitals.
Healey didn’t say if she would need masks in the event of another COVID outbreak. She praised Gov. Charlie Baker’s handling of COVID and said she, like Baker, would “follow the science” to manage the evolving threat.
Healey also supports COVID vaccination mandates for state employees.
Diehl, however, has placed his opposition to vaccination requirements at the center of his campaign. He says they infringe on individual liberty.
“I’m not anti-vaccine, I’m not anti-mask — I just want people to be able to make their own choice on this,” he said during the last Governors’ debate. “You should have the choice of your life to get the health care you decide – not the government imposing it on you.”
Developing mental health care
Both Diehl and Healey see mental health care as a priority, although neither says exactly how they would expand access to treatment.
Diehl’s campaign manager, Orlando, said Diehl was concerned about the mental health of children “who have been ignored during the pandemic and suffered as a result.”
“We also need to expand these services into the suburbs,” Orlando said in an email, “to help stem the tide of young drug users in our suburban communities without access to preventative care to help them get away from these choices.
Healey in 2019 reached landmark agreements with the state’s largest insurers to remove barriers for patients trying to access mental health treatment.
She has drawn national recognition for her lawsuits against Purdue Pharma and other companies for their role in fueling the opioid epidemic. She helped negotiate settlements including millions of dollars for cities and towns in Massachusetts to respond to the opioid crisis.
As governor, Healey says, she would invest in mental and behavioral health care, including treatment for people with substance use disorders.
“I know how important this is to families across the state, from people from all walks of life,” she said. “We have to do the job as a state to increase these resources.”
Protect the right to abortion
The US Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion in June, but abortion remains legal in Massachusetts.
Healey says she will protect access to abortion and “make sure women can access the health care they choose and need.”
Diehl says that while he personally opposes abortion, he won’t try to change abortion rights in Massachusetts. “Abortion will be protected when I’m governor,” he said.
Healey said she didn’t believe him.
Both candidates said they would work to grow the health workforce. The pandemic has exacerbated staffing shortages, and hospitals and other health care facilities are struggling to fill positions.
Healey also cited health equity as a priority. She said her administration would invest in medical care as well as things like safe and affordable housing, which impact health.
The governor’s administration oversees many aspects of health care, from managing the state’s Medicaid program to regulating hospitals and insurers to developing policy through legislation.
Donald Berwick, senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, said the next governor must prioritize cost control. Berwick ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor of Massachusetts in 2014 and now backs Healey.
“This cost erodes the welfare of small businesses. Much of it comes from the pockets of Massachusetts residents, including people on relatively marginal incomes. And something really needs to be done about that,” Berwick said.
“We never got traction on healthcare costs as a Commonwealth.”
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