Putting More Minds To Work Legislature Revamps Committees Focused on Health Care

Steve Bradley says that, over the past few decades, health care has become one of most important — and complex — issues facing society today.


That’s why he’s encouraged by the state Legislature’s decision to add several new committees that will address specific aspects of health care.

As part of a larger initiative to review and revamp the committee structure, the Legislature has taken two previously existing committees — The House Standing Committee on Medicaid and the Joint Committee on Health Care — and replaced them with the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. What’s more, two new joint committees — Public Health and Mental Health and Substance Abuse — have been added to address those specific concerns.

Bradley, the vice president for Government and Community Relations at Baystate Health System, told The Healthcare News that the changes and additions should lead to a more thorough examination of the issues and individual pieces of legislation pertaining to health care.

“The area of health care is so large, so complex, and of such importance to the average citizen of the Commonwealth, and also to businesses, it benefits from being broken up — so long as it can be re-integrated at the end,” he said. “Having three committees enables the legislature to delve more deeply into specific issues, and should help create effective policy.”

Paul Wingle agrees. A spokesperson for the Mass. Hospital Assoc., he told The Healthcare News that the committee restructuring will ultimately put more minds to work on the specific issues in health care today.

“Three times as many legislators will be focused on health care and studying it,” he said. “That’s a good result. Before we had one committee (the Joint Committee on Health Care) that heard a huge volume of bills, maybe 500 of them; that’s a massive undertaking for one committee.”

Here’s how the new health care committee structure breaks down:

• The Joint Committee on Health Care Financing will tackle issues relative to the cost of all health care, and will act as a “health care ways and means committee,” said Bradley. It will be chaired by state Sen. Richard Moore (D-Uxbridge), longtime chair of the former Joint Committee on Health Care, and state Rep. Patricia Walrath (D-Stow);
• The Joint Committee on Public Health was created to focus on prevention, out of recognition that it can ultimately reduce the cost of providing health care to the state’s residents. It will be chaired by state Sen. Susan Fargo (D-Lincoln) and state Rep. Peter Koutoujian (D-Newton);
• The Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse was created to address issues specific to this field within health care. It will be chaired by state Sen. Stephen Tolman (D-Brighton) and state Rep. Ruth Balser (D-Newton)

Rob Simpson, Chief Operating Officer of Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, a component of the Sisters of Providence Health System, called the mental health and substance abuse committee a “great leap forward” for that broad, often overlooked aspect of health care.

“Mental health and substance abuse have been stigmatized not only in a societal sense, but also in the care arena as well, meaning parity in payments to treat people with these illnesses,” he explained. “But they’ve also been stigmatized somewhat in legislatures across the country; our legislature has taken a big step forward in giving these issues their own committee.

“This is very symbolic,” he continued. “This puts us, in a sense, on equal footing, recognizing that mental illness and addiction are front-and-center problems in our society.”

Wingle agreed. He told The Healthcare News that the state has lost a number of “mental health beds” in recent years, and that a committee dedicated to that specific aspect of health care could reverse recent trends.

“We’ve seen the effects of these cuts and the overall neglect of this area,” he said. “By giving a separate committee a specific charge like this bodes well for this sector.”

Overall, Wingle said he is hopeful that the committee restructuring effort will lead to more thorough examination of dozens of proposed MHA-backed bills in the upcoming session. The measures include:

• An Act to Support the Nursing Profession and Promote Safe Patient Care, a bill that would provide a process to bolster the supply of nurses and nurse faculty through incentives for students and matching grants for hospitals. It also creates a public accountability process for developing staffing patterns for patient care;
• The Uncompensated Care Protection Act. In the event the hospital uncompensated care burden increase over the FY 2005 burden, all payers would be subject to a surcharge, the proceeds of which would fund the growth in the hospital burden;
• An Act Regarding Hospital Medical Record Retention Requirements, which would reduce the current hospital medical record retention period from 30 years (the highest in the country) to 15 years, and implements a process to notify patients and the state Dept. of Publlic Health prior to destroying the records; and
• An Act Relative to Determination of Need for Hospital Beds, which would eliminate the current antiquated automatic bed de-licensure law for low-occupancy acute hospital beds.