Senate leader vows to act on health payments plan

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / April 8, 2011

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Senate President Therese Murray vowed yesterday to take swift action on Governor Deval Patrick’s ambitious proposal to overhaul the state’s health care payment system, breaking with House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who wants to delay action until later this year or next year.

“I agree with the governor that something has to be done soon,’’ Murray said in response to a question at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast. “We are getting close. . . . We are going to do this.’’

Murray did not offer a time frame, but said the Senate would act “in the near future.’’ DeLeo told the chamber last month that “this is really one area [where] we have to slow down and make sure we get it right.’’

Murray said, “We have to make sure that what we put together doesn’t dismantle or hurt the system we have, but we are going to do it.’’

Patrick’s bill, a cornerstone of his second-term agenda, is intended to reduce rising medical costs by replacing the current fee-for-services system with a payment system in which hospitals and doctors would be given a set budget for each patient’s care. He has called it essential to the success of the state’s universal health care law. Earlier this week, he warned legislators, “We are not going to debate this to death.’’

Yesterday, the governor welcomed Murray’s commitment.

“Can I jump up and down about that?’’ he said. “It’s terrific. We have the speaker’s support, as well, and I think we will be able to get movement in the whole of the Legislature before next spring. . . . I’d like to see action by this fall.’’

While DeLeo has raised concerns about the bill’s complexity, “I don’t think we need to be defeated by that complexity, and I don’t think we need to have action postponed by that complexity,’’ the governor said. “I think we need to engage.’’

DeLeo’s point man on the issue, Representative Steven M. Walsh, said that reviewing the legislation is the “highest priority’’ for the panel he helps to lead, the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. “I’m not sure how we could be treating it any more urgently,’’ he said. But the issue needs to be studied carefully, he added.

“It doesn’t do it any justice to create artificial deadlines,’’ he said. “Let’s get it right. The Senate president, governor, and speaker all agree that it’s going to get done.’’

In addition, Murray said, the Senate would act quickly on the governor’s proposal to give cities and towns greater ability to control health costs by designing plans akin to the one offered to state employees. “But I emphatically agree with the governor that labor has to be at the table,’’ she said, opposing the idea of giving cities and towns unilateral power to make changes.

While Patrick has held out the prospect of giving some of the savings from health care changes back to union members, DeLeo has proposed giving all the savings to cities and towns.

Murray also echoed the governor’s recent comments about casino gambling legislation, saying that, unlike last year, “it’s not going to suck all the oxygen out’’ of the State House. She said she would take it up after the Senate’s other priorities are moving.

“We are not going to go through the exercise we went through last year,’’ when the bill died in a standoff between DeLeo and the governor over legalizing slot machines at the four racetracks in the state, she said.

Michael Levenson can be reached at