- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 3, 2012

BOSTON (AP) - Massachusetts has the nation’s highest rate of residents with health insurance. Visits to emergency rooms are beginning to ease. More residents are getting cancer screenings and more women are making prenatal doctors’ visits.

Still, one of the biggest challenges for the state lies ahead: reining in spiraling costs.

Six years after Gov. Mitt Romney signed the nation’s most ambitious health care law _ one that would lay the groundwork for his presidential opponent’s national version _ supporters say the Massachusetts law holds promise for the long-term success of Barack Obama’s plan.

Like the federal law it inspired, the Massachusetts law has multiple goals, among them expanding the number of insured residents, reducing emergency room visits, penalizing those who can afford coverage but opt to remain uninsured, and requiring employers to offer coverage or pay a fine.

Supporters of the Massachusetts experiment are quick to point out its successes.

An additional 400,000 individuals have gained insurance since 2006, meaning about 98 percent of residents have coverage.

A recent study by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation found that between 2006 and 2010, the use of emergency rooms for non-emergency reasons fell nearly 4 percent. That was a key goal of the law, since using emergency rooms for routine care is far more expensive than visiting a doctor.

State health officials also point to what they say are increases in mammograms, colon cancer screenings and prenatal care visits and a 150,000-person reduction in the number of smokers after the state expanded coverage for smoking cessation programs.

“Since Gov. Romney signed health care reform here in Massachusetts, more private companies are offering health care to their employees, fewer people are getting primary care in an expensive emergency room setting, and hundreds of thousands of our friends and neighbors have access to care,” said Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat and co-chairman of Obama’s re-election committee.

Another reason the law remains popular may be that so many Massachusetts residents receive insurance through work and have been largely untouched by its penalties. The Blue Cross Blue Shield study found 68 percent of non-elderly adults received coverage through their employers in 2010, up from about 64 percent in 2006.

The study also found no evidence to support one fear lawmakers had when they approved the law _ that employers or workers might drop coverage because of the availability of public coverage.

Another indication of the law’s acceptance in Massachusetts is the reduction in the number of those assessed a tax penalty for failing to have insurance despite being able to afford it. In 2010, 44,000 Massachusetts tax filers were assessed the penalty under the “individual mandate.” That’s a drop from the 67,000 people required to pay the penalty in 2007, the first year it was assessed.

In 2010, the highest penalty was $93 a month, or $1,116 a year. In 2012, the highest penalty increased to $105 a month, or $1,260 a year.

Massachusetts is the only state with an individual mandate, although the Supreme Court last week upheld the constitutionality of a similar mandate in the federal law.

Despite the penalty, most polls place support for the initiative at more than 60 percent, about double the approval rate for the federal health care law.

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