Sentinel & Enterprise (Fitchburg, MA)
Patrick, in Fitchburg business visit, vows fight for health-insurance reform
FITCHBURG -- Gov. Deval Patrick reiterated his call for health-insurance reform during a visit with small-business leaders from the region on Friday. "These double-digit rate increases are hard to justify," Patrick said at the meeting, held at J&R Glass on Water Street.
He met with J&R co-owner Roland Bessette and his controller, Kathy Alexander, as well as Bob Feen of Feen's Country Living, Paul A. DiGeronimo of Geronimo Properties in Leominster, and Cynthia Boucher of Commonwealth Water Purification Co. in Winchendon.
About 85 percent of the state's employment is in small businesses, Patrick said.
The business leaders outlined how they struggle with spiraling health-insurance costs.
J&R's insurance went up 11 percent this year and Commonwealth Water's rose 17 percent, which was better than the 47 percent increase a year ago, Boucher said.
The average health-insurance rate increase for small businesses is 34 percent, Patrick said.
But the rate of medical inflation is just 3.4 percent nationally and 5.1 percent in New England, he said.
"Then you look at these premium increases and it makes no sense," he said.
State Rep. Dennis Rosa, D-Leominster, who owns several local businesses, including American Auto Body and Repair, said health-insurance costs forced him to make layoffs last year.
"Because of health-care costs and the recession, I had a major layoff for the first time in 35 years," he said.
Alexander said she is encouraged by Patrick's focus on health-care costs.
Health-care costs affect J&R's ability to expand its operations, so it widened its area of business and does work as far away as Maine, she said.
"We're pleased (Patrick) is working to control the costs for us," she said. "Health insurance is number two, right behind payroll in terms of cost," Alexander said.
His administration is in negotiations with the insurance industry to settle lawsuits challenging Insurance Commissioner Joseph Murphy's rejection of rate increases for various insurers, Patrick said.
Murphy used emergency powers to reject 235 of 274 requests for rate increases April 1.
Rejecting rate increases is a short-term solution until reform is enacted, Patrick said.
Patrick filed a jobs bill in February with several proposals aimed at containing health-care costs, including creation of transparency in the insurance industry.
Patrick's bill would let the state reject the rates hospitals and other health care providers charge insurance companies if they grow faster than the medical inflation.
Also, an oversight plan would review rate increases before approval.
The insurance industry says reform is complicated and warns it could take five years, he said.
State Rep. Stephen L. DiNatale, D-Fitchburg, praised Patrick for visiting the business leaders.
"I think he's trying to get the message to them (that) he understands their concerns," DiNatale said.
Clark Straight, owner of the Johnsonian downtown, got a reassurance from Patrick that plans for railroad improvements are on track for 2011.