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Universal health insurance plan advances Thursday, July 15, 2004
Jon Brodkin ( 508-626-4424 ) Metrowest Daily News
The state Legislature overwhelmingly voted to make health insurance a constitutionally protected right yesterday, paving the way for a potential statewide referendum on universal health care in 2006.

Needing just 50 votes to advance, a proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing all Massachusetts residents access to affordable health coverage was approved 152-41.

"I feel that health care is a fundamental right and that government has a responsibility to provide acceptable and affordable health care to all its citizens," state Rep. David Linsky, D-Natick, said after yesterday's vote.

The vote, which took place in a constitutional convention joining the House and Senate, was the first legislative test for the citizens petition drive to amend the state constitution.

Several more steps are necessary before universal health care could be put into place.  To become part of the state constitution, the amendment must gain one more approval from the Legislature during the 2005-2006 session, and it must pass a statewide vote at the November 2006 election.

The amendment, if approved by voters, would direct the state to develop a specific plan for providing universal health coverage.  That plan would then be submitted to voters for final approval, putting the likely earliest date of implementation in 2008.

Barbara Waters Roop, an attorney who is one of the leaders of the citizens group spearheading the universal health care drive, praised yesterday's vote.

"We were delighted.  I think we thought we could get a majority, and we were very pleased that so many legislators chose to respond to the voters' petition for change to fix our health care system," she said.

Roop's organization, the Health Care for Massachusetts Campaign, gathered 71,385 signatures to guarantee the amendment a place in this year's constitutional convention.

The group's original proposal would have simply required the Legislature and state executive officials to ensure that all residents have access to affordable health insurance.  It would not have given voters a chance to review the state's plan before it is implemented.

But support for the amendment was bolstered after it was changed to allow residents oversight over the final plan via a second ballot question.

Requiring the second vote makes the process "more cumbersome," but gives the state additional time to figure out how to provide universal health coverage, said state Rep. Deborah Blumer, D-Framingham.

One universal health proposal is the single-payer model, which would replace public and private health plans with a government-run trust that would pay for medical needs.

The Legislature is finalizing a bill that would require the state Division of Health Care Finance and Policy to complete a cost estimate of the single-payer model, said state Rep. Peter Koutoujian, D-Waltham, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Health Care.

Another proposal, Koutoujian said, would require employers who do not provide health insurance to their workers to pay into a fund that would provide insurance to those without.  An estimated 600,000 state residents are uninsured.

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