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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Most want free care pool to remain unchanged

By Alice Dembner, Globe Staff

The more things change…

As part of the state's health insurance initiative, the "free care pool," which pays for treatment for the uninsured, is supposed to be revamped.

But at a session this afternoon to gather suggestions about changes to the pool, speaker after speaker told state officials that the pool needs to remain pretty much unchanged.

For low- and moderate-income people who remain uninsured, the pool should continue to cover all medically necessary services, including preventive care, substance abuse treatment, prescription drugs and hospital treatment, speakers from various hospital organizations, community health centers and advocacy groups said.

And it should help those with low incomes whose insurance has gaps, and cover bills that hospitals can’t collect from low-income patients, the speakers said.

"It’s functioned well," said Pat Edraos, policy director for the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers. "Don’t make it any worse until the glitches are worked out" of the health insurance initiative.

The lone dissenter was the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, which suggested limiting the coverage to a smaller group: those people not eligible for Medicaid or subsidized insurance; those who get waivers from the state’s new insurance requirement; and those with medical hardships.

The state Division of Health Care Finance and Policy is working on new regulations –- expected in mid-July -- to define who will be eligible and what services will be covered under the pool’s successor, to be called the Health Safety Net Trust Fund.

The assumption is that the fund won’t be needed as much, since more people will be insured. And the state is counting on using a big chunk of the $600 million that now goes to the pool to pay for insurance subsidies for low-income patients.

As of March, according to the Massachusetts Hospital Association, pool costs are down about 11 percent, compared with last year. The state’s own accounting is expected next month.

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