BOSTON -- The nation's most comprehensive health reform effort became law yesterday as Gov. Mitt Romney signed a bill that will assure near-universal health insurance for Massachusetts residents.
The measure, which resulted from a year of negotiations between the Republican governor and the overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature, was swiftly heralded as a national model. Insurance providers and health experts also took part in the deliberations.
The law will require all state residents to purchase health insurance by July 2007.
"An achievement like this comes around once in a generation, and it proves that government can work when people of both parties reach across the aisle for the common good," Romney said yesterday as he signed the bill in a ceremony at historic Faneuil Hall.
"Today, Massachusetts is leading the way with health insurance for everyone, without a government takeover and without raising taxes."
Romney exercised his line-item veto power to overturn eight parts of the bill, including a $295-per worker assessment on businesses that was considered critical.
Some critics described the fee as a tax on business, and on call-in radio shows over the weekend, many owners of small businesses told the governor that the assessment was an onerous burden. In vetoing the provision, Romney said the fee was "not necessary to implement or finance health care reform."
The governor also vetoed a section of the bill that would have extended dental benefits to adult Medicaid recipients at an annual cost of $75 million.
Leaders in the legislature have promised to override Romney's vetoes.
The law targets more than a half-million Massachusetts residents who have no health insurance. Using a sliding scale, low-income residents will be able to obtain health insurance at greatly reduced costs or, in some cases, at no cost.
Tax penalties will be imposed on residents who can afford private insurance but do not obtain coverage.
The law spreads costs and administrative responsibilities among residents, employers and government. An incentive for drafting the legislation was a brief period during which $385 million in annual federal subsidies was available if the state could reduce the number of uninsured residents.
Private insurance companies will be eligible for government subsidies to increase coverage for children and the working poor.
The measure also creates a means of linking businesses and individuals with insurance providers.
The bill is expected to cost $316 million in the first year, then rise to more than $1 billion by the third year. Much of the money will come from federal reimbursements and state funds.
The bill is considered a coup for Romney, who is not seeking re-election and likely to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. States across the country are closely watching the Massachusetts model to see whether the reform will work.
Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a frequent Romney critic, stood beside the governor yesterday to praise the state for devising the most inclusive health insurance program in the nation.
"With the signing of this landmark health reform bill, after so many years of false starts, our actions have finally matched our words and we have lived up to our ideals," said Kennedy, a Democrat. "You have given Massachusetts just what the doctor ordered."
It was the first time that the two men had shared a stage at Faneuil Hall since Romney unsuccessfully tried to unseat Kennedy in 1994.
"Having Senator Kennedy and me together on the same stage and behind the same piece of landmark legislation will help slow global legislation, because hell has frozen over," Romney said.
Elizabeth Mehren writes for the Los Angeles Times