Massachusetts Extends Deadline for Expanded Health Coverage

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Massachusetts, one of the first states to pass a universal health insurance law, requires all residents, including uninsured adults, to purchase some kind of health insurance policy by July 1, 2007 or face a fine; but businesses and individuals will be given until January 1, 2009 to sign on for what the state considers a “minimum standard of care,” the Associated Press reports.

The additional time was needed to allow employers, workers and insurers to make the transition to the new standards, which will include prescription drug coverage.

“This is another giant step forward,” said Jon Kingsdale, executive director of the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector, which oversees the law and granted the extension, the Associated Press reports. ”This is not really about employers vs. individuals vs. taxpayers.”

Businesses had pushed for the extension, arguing that meeting the minimum standard could be both time-consuming and expensive. Most employers have only brief periods during which employees sign up for coverage and these signup periods are staggered through the year. In addition, many company and union plans do not currently cover prescription drugs, or have plans that do not meet the standards the state is expected to set for deductibles and lifetime caps. Individuals who already have coverage may be forced to purchase more.

“The whole idea of healthcare reform was to take care of uninsured people,” Jim Crosby, owner of Crosby's Markets, a six-store chain in Salem, said, according to the Boston Globe. “Instead they are screwing around with people that already have coverage. Our employees are basically happy with the health plan.” Crosby is not sure whether the insurance he currently provides for his employees will meet the standard.

Implementation of the law could have foundered if the new standard was imposed in 2007. “It's a balancing act,” Kingsdale said, the Globe reports. “It took two to three years to get the law enacted. It will take two to three years to implement it.”

Under the new law, uninsured people earning less than the federal poverty level can purchase subsidized policies that have no premiums, and are responsible for very small co-payment fees for emergency-room visits and other services, the Washington Post says. Those earning up to three times the poverty-level amount can buy subsidized policies with premiums based on their ability to pay.

All residents will have to provide details about their health insurance policy on their state income tax returns in 2008.

Supporter and signer of the Massachusetts law, former governor Mitt Romney, compared the idea of requiring every resident to have health insurance to the requirement that every driver have auto insurance. The state is expected to spend $1.64 billion on the program in 2007.

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