How the Massachusetts gubernatorial candidates will tackle health care

The threat of COVID continues. Inflation drives up medical costs. Staff shortages threaten access to health care.

Massachusetts’ next governor will have to contend with these and other challenges.

Democrat Maura Healey has targeted health care costs since her first days as attorney general in 2015. She played a role in slowing the growth of the state’s largest and most expensive health care system, Mass General Brigham. Healey allowed the major hospital merger that created Beth Israel Lahey Health, but only after the hospitals agreed to cap their prices for seven years.

Dill, a former state lawmaker, says Healy hasn’t done enough to protect consumers from high costs, while Healy accuses Dill of pushing for policies that would raise costs and hurt Massachusetts residents. She cited his past opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which Healey fought to preserve.

So how would the candidates tackle health care and its many challenges as governor? Here’s what they told WBUR:

We make care more affordable

The majority of Massachusetts residents have health insurance, but 41 percent had trouble paying for health care last year, according to a state survey.

Healy and Dill say they want to make care more affordable. Healy says he will do that through greater accountability and oversight of the health care industry, though he did not specify how.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in health care over the last eight years, and there are certainly a lot of challenges,” Healy told reporters during a recent campaign stop at the UMass Boston School of Nursing. “One is affordability. We don’t have affordability if we don’t have affordable health care.”

Diehl’s campaign manager, Amanda Orlando, said she wants to give consumers more information and more choices about health insurance plans and hospitals.

Managing COVID

Healy has not said whether she would need masks in the event of another surge of COVID. She praised Gov. Charlie Baker’s handling of COVID and said she, like Baker, will “follow the science” to address the evolving threat.

Healy also supports COVID vaccination mandates for government employees.

Deal, however, made his opposition to vaccination requirements the centerpiece of his campaign. According to him, they violate personal freedom.

“I’m not against vaccines, I’m not against masks — I just want people to be able to make their own choices about it,” he said in the last gubernatorial debate. “You should have a choice in your life to get the health care you choose — not have the government force it on you.”

Expanding mental health care

Dill and Healy both listed mental health care as a priority, but neither said exactly how they would expand access to treatment.

Diehl’s campaign manager, Orlando, said Diehl is concerned about the mental health of children “who have been ignored during the pandemic and have suffered for it.”

“We also need to expand these services to the suburbs,” Orlando said in an email, “to help stem the tide of drug addiction among young people in our suburban communities without access to preventive care to help them move away from this choice.”

Healey in 2019 reached landmark settlements with the state’s largest insurers to remove barriers to patients trying to access mental health treatment.

She received national recognition for her lawsuits against Purdue Pharma and other companies for their role in the birth of the opioid epidemic. She helped negotiate settlements that included millions of dollars for Massachusetts cities to respond to the opioid crisis.

As governor, Hilley says he will invest in mental and behavioral health care, including treatment for people with substance use disorders.

“I know the meaning of this for families across the state, from people from all walks of life,” she said. “We have to do the work as a country to increase those resources.”

Defending abortion rights

The US Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion in June, but abortion remains legal in Massachusetts.

Healey says she will protect access to abortion and “make sure women have access to the health care they choose and need.”

Diehl says that although he personally opposes abortion, he will not try to change abortion rights in Massachusetts. “Abortion will be protected when I’m governor,” he says.

Healy said he didn’t believe that.

Other priorities

Both candidates said they would work to increase the health care workforce. The pandemic has exacerbated staff shortages, and hospitals and other healthcare facilities are struggling to fill jobs.

Healy also cited health care equity as a priority. She said her administration would invest in medical care, as well as things like safe and affordable housing, which impact health.

The governor’s administration oversees many aspects of health care, from managing the state’s Medicaid program, to regulating hospitals and insurers, to shaping policy through legislation.

Donald Berwick, a senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, said the next governor should prioritize cost control. Berwick ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor of Massachusetts in 2014 and now supports Healey.

“These costs undermine the well-being of small businesses. Much of it comes from the pockets of Massachusetts people, including people with relatively low incomes. And something really needs to be done about it,” Berwick said.

“We’ve never gotten a grip on health care costs as a community.”

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