by Michael Gecan and Cheri Andes for The Daily News

June 6, 2012


In 2006, then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney helped save the lives of two sick women: Tammy Stafford and Lavern Barnes.

If we lived in the era of silent films, Stafford and Barnes would be tied to train tracks and resigned to their fates. Then the governor and his deputies would ride in, vanquish the varmints who put the ladies there and release them just before the train roared through.

But we do not live in the era of silent films. We live in an era of shouting ideologues. So the humane, mature and even brave actions of a moderate Republican governor, Democratic legislators, citizens organizations, insurance executives and other health professionals are either denied or ridiculed by the right or minimized and declared inadequate by the left.

The governor saved the lives of Stafford and Barnes by signing groundbreaking health reform, neutrally known as Chapter 58 of the Acts of 2006, into law.

This is the bogeyman known, derisively, as "Romneycare." It made it possible for Barnes, previously uninsured, to see a doctor for the first time in 15 years. That doctor discovered that she had a large mass in her intestinal tract and recommended emergency surgery. The surgery saved her from a painful life and, possibly, an early death.

Stafford was also uninsured before 2006. Her mother, sister, grandmother and aunts had all contracted breast cancer. But lacking insurance (and thus the ability to pay for care), she avoided checkups and prayed for the best.

As soon as the Massachusetts health reform plan was enacted, Stafford went for her first mammogram in years. Testing found evidence of early-stage breast cancer. She was treated and recovered fully.

These stories are not just "anecdotal evidence," as wonks and academics like to sniff. The National Bureau of Economic Research found that residents of Massachusetts are, on the whole, healthier as a result of a health reform act that Romney now pretends was the work of someone else who happened to have the same name.

With nearly 98% of residents now covered, physical health, mental health, fitness and other aspects of a decent life have all improved. The greatest improvements, unsurprisingly, have been found in those most vulnerable — seniors, women, minorities and those with incomes low enough to qualify for the law's subsidies.

In other words, not only did Romney and company save the lives of Tammy Stafford and Lavern Barnes, but they kept riding down the track untying thousands of people who were resigned to lives of pain, illness and early death.

These results were the product of a tough and tangled negotiation involving the then-governor, legislators and civic, religious and industry leaders that led to a common agreement based on some basic principles: addressing the real and growing plight of the uninsured — all those who had been captured by forces outside their control and left to their fates.

So, what about those dreaded costs? The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, an independent nonprofit research organization, released a report last month on just that topic. It concluded that "additional state spending attributable to the health reform law accounted for only 1.4% of the Commonwealth's $32 billion budget in fiscal 2011."

Once the state with the highest rate for family premiums, Massachusetts now ranks ninth, and its rate of growth for both individual and family premiums is far below the national average. At the same time, 77% of Massachusetts employers now offer health insurance, up from 69% in 2005.

This reminds us of the old economists' joke, "That's all well and good in practice, but how does it work in theory?"

The Massachusetts health reform approach does not work in theory. It fails the theorists on the left, who still clamor for single-payer and argue for a pure and total plan that would undermine the good already achieved.

It fails the theorists on the right, who scream for a market approach and deny what the essayist Marilynne Robinson called "miscreant fact."

Romney should man up, put the white hat back on, stare down the gangs on the right and the left and admit that he saved lives that needed saving — and that he does not think it such a terrible thing to save many more down the road.

Gecan is the former co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation. Andes is the lead organizer for the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization.

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