Required insurance law sets standard
Poll: 55 percent would support law like that in Massachusetts

Thursday, April 13, 2006; Posted: 12:06 p.m. EDT (16:06 GMT)

BOSTON, Massachusetts (AP) -- By next summer, Massachusetts may cross a threshold that has eluded presidents, governors and other political leaders for generations by becoming the first state to require universal health care coverage.

Massachusetts took a major step toward that accomplishment Wednesday when Gov. Mitt Romney signed legislation designed to guarantee coverage for virtually all residents by July 2007, including an estimated 550,000 people who are now uninsured.

The law has set a standard for other states and thrust Massachusetts to the forefront of the national debate about how to dramatically expand health care coverage without creating a single government-controlled system.

Even as he signed the law amid fanfare at historic Faneuil Hall, Romney faced criticism for vetoing a key portion of the legislation: a $295 per employee annual fee on businesses that do not provide their employees with coverage.

The law also provides subsidies and sliding-scale premiums to get poor and low-income residents into health plans and require those deemed able to afford insurance to purchase a policy.

"We have found a way, collectively, to get all of our citizens insurance without some new government-mandated takeover or a huge new tax program," Romney said.

Romney is weighing a potential run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and the law could be a centerpiece of that campaign.

Speakers at the ticket-only signing event, attended by more than 300 people, included Democratic U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy.

"After so many years of false starts, our actions have finally matched our words and we have lived up to our ideals," Kennedy said. "You have given Massachusetts just what the doctor ordered."

An ABC News-Washington Post poll of more than 1,000 adults nationwide released Wednesday found 55 percent of Americans would support a health care law similar to the Massachusetts model in their own states. Forty-one percent opposed. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Romney used his line-item veto power to strike eight portions of the bill, including the $295 fee. He said the fee was not needed to pay for the reform.

Leaders of the heavily Democratic House and Senate have said they would override the vetoes. House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi called the vetoes disingenuous, saying the law was crafted with concessions and compromise.

"To change anything will disturb the delicate balance that made this law possible," DiMasi said.

Business and hospital leaders also criticized the veto of the fee. Massachusetts Hospital Association President Ron Hollander said it threatened the balance of the bill.

"I think it is important that all the parts and all the parties stay together," he said. "The employer assessment is critical."

Romney, speaking to reporters after the event, defended the action.

"There are many businesses who have been flooding my office with calls as well as business associations, that are very concerned about it," he said.

Under the law, those who can afford insurance but still refuse to get it will face escalating tax penalties.

The cost of the health care package was put at $316 million in the first year, rising to more than a $1 billion in the third year, with much of that money coming from federal reimbursements and existing state spending, officials said.