The COVID threat is persistent. Inflation drives up medical costs. Staff shortages threaten access to health care.
The next Massachusetts governor will face these challenges and more.
Democrat Maura Healey has been targeting healthcare costs since her early days as Attorney General in 2015. She played a role in slowing the growth of the state’s largest and most expensive healthcare system, Mass General Brigham. Healey allowed the large hospital merger she created Beth Israel Lahey Health, but only after hospitals agreed to limit their prices for seven years.
Diehl, a former state lawmaker, says Healey has not done enough to protect consumers from high costs, while Healey accuses Diehl of fighting for policies that would increase costs and harm Massachusetts residents. He cites his past opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which Healey fought to preserve.
So how would candidates cope with health care and its many challenges as governor? Here’s what they told WBUR:
Making care more accessible
The vast majority of Massachusetts residents have health insurance, but 41 percent had trouble paying for health care last year, according to a state survey.
Both Healey and Diehl say they want to make support more accessible. Healey says he would do so through increased responsibility and oversight of the health sector, though he didn’t specify how.
“I have spent a lot of time on health care over the past eight years, and certainly there are a number of challenges,” Healey told reporters during a recent election campaign at the UMass School of Nursing in Boston. “One is accessibility. We don’t have accessibility if we don’t have affordable healthcare ”.
Diehl’s campaign manager Amanda Orlando said she wants to provide consumers with more information and more choices of health insurance plans and hospitals.
Healey did not say whether he would need masks in the event of another wave of COVID. She praised Governor Charlie Baker’s handling of COVID and said that, like Baker, he would “follow the science” to manage the evolving threat.
Healey also supports COVID vaccination mandates for state workers.
Diehl, however, put his opposition to vaccination requirements at the heart of his campaign. He says they violate personal freedom.
“I’m not anti-vaccine, I’m not anti-mask – I just want people to be able to make their own choice about it,” he said in the latest government debate. “You should have the choice with your lives to get the health care you decide, not the government that dictates it to you.”
Expand mental health care
Diehl and Healey both list mental health care as a priority, although neither says exactly how they would expand access to care.
Diehl’s campaign manager Orlando said Diehl is concerned about the mental health of children “who were ignored during the pandemic and suffered from it.”
“We also need to expand these services to the suburbs,” Orlando said in an email, “to help stem the tide of drug addicts in our suburban communities without access to preventative care to help them escape these choices. “.
Healey struck historic deals with major state insurers in 2019 to remove barriers for patients attempting to access mental health care.
He gained national recognition for his lawsuits against Purdue Pharma and other companies for their role in generating the opioid epidemic. He has helped negotiate deals that include millions of dollars for Massachusetts towns and cities to respond to the opioid crisis.
As governor, Healey says, he would invest in mental and behavioral health care, including treatment for people with substance use disorder.
“I know the importance of this for families across the state, from people from all walks of life,” he said. “We have to do work as a state to increase those resources.”
Protection of the right to abortion
The US Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion in June, but abortion remains legal in Massachusetts.
Healey says it will protect access to abortion and “make sure women have access to the health care they choose and need.”
Diehl says that while he personally opposes abortion, he will not seek to change abortion rights in Massachusetts. “Abortion will be protected when I am governor,” he says.
Healey said he doesn’t believe it.
Both candidates said they will work to grow the healthcare workforce. The pandemic has exacerbated staff shortages, and hospitals and other health care facilities have struggled to fill jobs.
Healey also cited health equity as a priority. He said his administration will invest in medical care and things like safe and affordable housing, which have an impact on health.
The governor’s administration oversees many aspects of health care, from managing the state Medicaid program, to regulating hospitals and insurers, to defining policy through legislation.
Donald Berwick, a researcher at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, said the next governor must prioritize cost control. Berwick ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor of Massachusetts in 2014 and now supports Healey.
“This cost is eroding the well-being of small businesses. Much comes from the pockets of the people of Massachusetts, including people with relatively marginal incomes. And something really needs to be done about it, ”Berwick said.
“We have never been as successful on health care costs as the Commonwealth.”