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It's been 3 years since the pandemic began, will Massachusetts lawmakers continue remote meetings?

An interior hallway at the State House in Boston in a 2019 photo.
Lëa-Kim Châteauneuf
Wikimedia Commons
An interior hallway at the State House in Boston in a 2019 photo.

Three years after the start of the pandemic Massachusetts lawmakers are deciding whether to let cities and towns keep meeting remotely.

A stalled budget bill containing provisions to extend pandemic era policies like remote meetings and cocktails to-go was stagnant again last week. It also includes a provision for some enhanced food benefits. House and Senate leaders have yet to name a conference committee to work out the final measure to send to Gov. Maura Healey.

Chris Lisinski of the State House News Service explains what’s going on.

Chris Lisinski, SHNS: The clock is ticking on this, more so than it usually is with much of the legislation, because there are several key deadlines we're coming up on. March 30th 1st or April 1st deadlines. The end of this month cities and towns and all public bodies, agencies and commissions in Massachusetts will lose the authorization to hold their meetings remotely. At this point there seem to be questions about whether lawmakers are just negotiating this informally behind the scenes. That's not too common, but it's not unprecedented. We see that sometimes when the differences aren't all that big and the branches need to move more quickly than they might be able to with a formal conference committee. But we're still trying to get that nailed down. And they've got maybe ten, 11 days to figure out how they're going to reconcile this before we actually feel the effects of some of these expirations.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: Things are expensive. From electricity to food, Massachusetts residents face sharply rising costs at every turn, and maintaining affordability for health care like medications and other needs was on the minds of regulators and industry groups last week. But we're coming out of a pandemic, it isn't a simple task. Chris, you covered this story. What are lawmakers and commissioners struggling with?

They're struggling with what the right way to plan for health care cost growth is. You know, back in 2012, Massachusetts enacted a new law creating a couple of panels that would take a really close look at health care data here in the state and requiring lawmakers and other policymakers to agree on a target for how much health care spending can grow each year. The problem is that that target looks at the next year based on data that's 2 or 3 years old. So that doesn't really account for all the disruption that's happened in recent years during the pandemic.

And last week we saw that really come into full view as some lawmakers openly questioned, are we even taking the right approach anymore or do we need to rethink the entire way we analyze and project what Bay Staters are going to face in terms of health care costs?

So, there's talk of blowing up the old model. One thing our newsroom reports regularly on is that hospitals are struggling financially. I'm assuming hospitals have a seat at the table in this process. What's next?

The pressure is growing to enact some new reforms to give the Health Policy Commission, the primary regulatory agency, new tools to rein in health care costs. That group can't actually impose financial penalties on individual hospitals, on individual providers or health plans that it deems responsible for escalating costs. It can only order them to cut their costs. So, they're looking for some new powers. Hospital groups are looking to Beacon Hill to do something about the widespread staffing crisis. You know, in fiscal year 2022, hospitals across the Baystate spent something like $1.5 billion just on temporary staffing to fill open holes that they obviously had to fill to continue providing services. So, the fact that everywhere is struggling so much with labor is another major cost driver. Prescription drug prices, another area that has long been in the spotlight. I suppose the trend now is can lawmakers actually get any reforms across the finish line for these issue areas that have been known for so long.

Another story you covered last week, Chris, focused on subsidized public housing in Gov. Healey's next fiscal year budget. She kept that level funded at $92 million, the same as for this year. But, as we've been saying, inflation is driven everything up. There has been a call for increasing that amount. What are people saying?

Advocates want Healey to double that line item to $184 million next year to better support the public housing inventory in the state. I heard some pretty harrowing stories from public housing residents grappling with cockroaches, cracked tiles, greasy cabinets, things like that. They say there's simply not enough money. There's also a growing push for Healey to authorize a new housing bond bill and borrow north of $8 billion over a five-year period to undergo a really major capital plan across the state to repair our aging housing stock and bring things back up to snuff.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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