Christians are cautiously optimistic about a Massachusetts health coverage plan that some are calling a model for other states. On April 12, Gov. Mitt Romney signed legislation making medical insurance accessible to all state residents, with one catch: The bill also makes insurance mandatory. Beginning in July 2007, Massachusetts adults without health insurance will be subject to fines, just like drivers who fail to purchase auto insurance.

Touted as the first market-based reform of a state's health-care system, the bill strives to fulfill two seemingly divergent goals: providing insurance for those who can't afford it while also eliminating nonpaying freeloaders.

Massachusetts's bill extends coverage to about 500,000 uninsured. Eligible residents can purchase subsidized plans with sliding-scale premiums and no deductibles. Other uninsured residents will be enrolled in Medicaid or directed to low-premium policies that sometimes carry high deductibles.

The state will fund the subsidies without raising taxes by redirecting part of the $1 billion it currently spends on uninsured care.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, lauded the bill as an innovative attempt, at least, to address an important moral and human-rights issue.

"The Bible tells us to do unto others as we would have others do unto us. If I were uninsured, I would want others to come to my aid and demand solutions," said Land, who sits on the interfaith advisory board of Cover the Uninsured Week, an annual event that advocates for improving health care nationwide. "With this country's economic prosperity, we can and should find ways to provide health care for everyone."

According to the website for Cover the Uninsured Week, nearly 46 million Americans lack medical coverage, including more than 8 million children.

"We're very pleased that Massachusetts is taking the lead on this issue," said Kristian Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute. "It is [about] reaching out to those who are impoverished, those who are in need, visiting those in the hospital, tending to the sick. It's all part of the great social mandate that we [Christians] have."

But critics contend the legislation may harm the uninsured more than it helps them. That's because it fails to control spiraling health-care costs, said Alan Sager, a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health. It also forces poor families to purchase insurance they may be unable to afford, even with subsidies.

"The bill is a little pompous in its willingness to push uninsured people around," Sager said. "The bill is very cowardly in its [lack of] willingness to confront all the waste and excess costs in health care and to bring out some of that waste to make health care affordable—and durably affordable—for everyone."

The bill creates a public forum for comparing insurance companies' prices and services. Dick Powers, a spokesman for Massachusetts's Health and Human Services Department, says this provision will drive down inflated fees.

Over time, Powers said, the plan may be fine-tuned, but "it's a dramatic improvement over the conditions that exist today."

Related Elsewhere:

More about the law is available from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

News elsewhere includes:

State plan may curb hospital choice | Insurance authority looks at ways to keep premium costs down (The Boston Globe, June 8, 2006)
'Person of Faith' | Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney discusses health care, gay marriage and whether he will run for the nation's highest office. (Newsweek, June 7, 2006)
Health Care Reform in Massachusetts — A Work in Progress | When fully implemented, the reforms should represent a meaningful advance against the problem of the medically uninsured, even though only Massachusetts residents will benefit. The overall effect is harder to predict. (New England Journal of Medicine, May 18, 2006)
Bill may undercut Mass. health effort | Kennedy criticizes Republican-backed insurance measure (The Boston Globe, May 11, 2006)

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