Baker commits to coverage as healthcare debate heats up

By Katie Lannan

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, NOV. 16, 2016....Regardless of whatever changes President-elect Donald Trump and the new Congress plan for federal health insurance legislation next year, Gov. Charlie Baker said it is important for Massachusetts residents to stay covered.

"Massachusetts had a universal plan in place before the Affordable Care Act. It's important to the people of Massachusetts that we can continue to be committed to that," Baker told reporters Wednesday after returning from a Republican Governors Association gathering in Florida, where he huddled with Vice President-Elect Mike Pence of Indiana and other GOP chief executives.

"I think it's going to be incumbent on all of us that the people of Massachusetts continue to be covered," Baker said.

WATCH: Baker on Health Care Under Trump

Since winning the Nov. 8 election, Trump has pointed to jobs, immigration and health care as among his top priorities as the country's 45th president. His stance on health care includes a vow to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 health insurance reform law that is also known as Obamacare. Among other features, the law requires people who can afford insurance but do not buy it to pay a fee on their federal taxes and allows children up to age 26 to remain covered on a parent's plan.

A 2006 Massachusetts law signed by former Gov. Mitt Romney requires all state residents to have health insurance or pay a tax penalty. Less than 3 percent of residents are uninsured here, the lowest uninsured rate in the nation. The Massachusetts law became the model for Obamacare.

On his campaign website, Trump describes the Affordable Care Act as "terrible legislation" and an "incredible economic burden."

"On day one of the Trump Administration, we will ask Congress to immediately deliver a full repeal of Obamacare," the website says, going on to suggest a series of reforms including Medicaid block grants to states, health savings accounts and price transparency requirements for providers.

After calling for Congress to "completely repeal" the Affordable Care Act in his health care position statement, Trump has since expressed a willingness to keep some of the law's features, a shift Baker highlighted in his comments on Wednesday.

"I think the president-elect's already said there are elements of the Affordable Care Act he believes should be retained and that there's a process that needs to be sort of pursued with respect to this," Baker said. "And that's a good example of where I think the governors have a terrific opportunity to both advocate and engage with the feds on how this moves forward."

In an interview on 60 Minutes Sunday, Trump said he wanted to make sure that people with pre-existing conditions remain covered and that despite the cost, he will "very much try and keep" coverage for "children living with their parents for an extended period."

He said replacement legislation would be done "simultaneously" with repeal of the existing law.

"We're not going to have, like, a two-day period and we're not going to have a two-year period where there's nothing," Trump said. "It will be repealed and replaced. And we'll know. And it'll be great health care for much less money. So it'll be better health care, much better, for less money. Not a bad combination."

Baker expressed both optimism and some uncertainty that a five-year Medicaid waiver approved by the Obama administration earlier this month earlier would remain in place after the transition of power.

The $52.5 billion deal takes effect on July 1, 2017 and will facilitate an effort to transition the MassHealth system toward an accountable care organization model. The new waiver agreement prevents the state from losing $1 billion a year in federal funds.

In June, before the agreement was reached, Baker said he wanted the waiver negotiated before the end of President Barack Obama's term so that state officials would not have to "start all over again" with a new administration.

Baker said Wednesday the waiver "represents a structured relationship between the commonwealth and the federal government moving forward."

Asked if he believed the new administration could pull back on the waiver deal, the governor said, "The answer is, I'm not sure, but my expectation at this point is that the answer is no."

In announcing the waiver, the Baker administration said it hoped to maintain the state's "near-universal health care insurance coverage," touting the "highest rate of insured residents in the U.S."

The Health Connector, the state's health insurance marketplace, on Wednesday launched a new multilingual advertising campaign aimed at reaching the remaining uninsured population during the open enrollment period that runs through the end of January.

Messages will run in eight languages across 55 ethnic TV, radio and print outlets, and multilingual organizers will attend events to provide information to residents who need assistance.

Louis Gutierrez, the Health Connector's executive director, said in a statement that data shows ethnic populations in Massachusetts, particularly Latinos, are less likely to have health insurance than the rest of the state.