Officials hail health care law on fifth anniversary of passage

At the Neponset Health Center, 14 percent of hypertensive patients between 2008 and 2010 saw improved blood pressure readings. Emergency room visits for 60,000 Boston residents enrolled in Neighborhood Health Plan decreased by 20 percent in the same period. And the state’s top doctor, Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby, credited health care centers such as the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center for making room on their calendars for tens of thousands of newly insured patients.

Those were some of the statistics cited by local and state health officials this week as they sought to highlight the fifth anniversary of the state’s health care reform law, which also served as a model for the federal plan.

“A lack of insurance is a health risk, just like smoking or obesity or diabetes,” said Joel Abrams, president and CEO of Dorchester House, where officials gathered on Monday to tout the law’s success.

“It has really secured health care coverage for people, it has guaranteed some stability in the coverage when they’re not necessarily eligible for Medicaid,” Abrams said. “For community centers, that’s important.”

Before the state law took effect in 2006, many of the uninsured went to emergency rooms for care, leading to higher costs and limiting their ability to seek quality care, said Deborah Enos, the head of Neighborhood Health Plan, which started in Dorchester and now boasts 230,000 members.

She cited the drop in emergency room visits among her members as evidence that the law, which mandates that residents get health care coverage or face a penalty, is working. “This demonstrates how effectively patient behavior can be impacted, particularly among those with previously limited access to the coordinated care model, and consistent and comprehensive coverage,” she said.

Overall, 401,000 more Massachusetts residents have attained health insurance coverage status since the law was passed, with 98.1 percent of all residents insured, according to a Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation report released this week.

But costs and spending remain a problem. “With no intervention, per capital health care spending in Massachusetts is projected to nearly double by 2020,” the report said.

State Sen. Richard Moore, an Uxbridge Democrat who helped craft the law, told the State House News Service that “we will see costs getting better, as far as controlling it without reducing quality and without hurting the positive outcomes.” He added: “Whether it’s still going to be as affordable as we like it to be, I don’t know yet.”

But so far, so good, officials said, with some taking aim at criticism that the law has lead to a rise in premiums. “The truth is that Massachusetts health care reform has been a success,” said Senate President Therese Murray, a Dorchester native who now represents Plymouth.

Missing from the Dorchester House event, which was put together by the Mass. League of Community Health Centers and the consumer advocacy group Health Care For All, were several of the health care law’s authors, including former Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, and former Senate President Robert Travaglini.

Romney, inching towards a second presidential run, has sought to distance himself from the law, while DiMasi is awaiting trial on corruption charges he has pleaded not guilty to. Travaglini stepped down from his post and became a lobbyist.

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.