Most in Mass. insured: Access to care tight


By Steve LeBlanc

BOSTON, Nov. 17 —

Access to health care in Massachusetts remains tight, with hospital emergency rooms increasingly picking up the slack, even as the state has experienced a surge in the number of insured residents.

Those are some of the findings of an annual report released Tuesday by the Massachusetts Health Council that looks at a range of health-related factors, from tobacco use and obesity to violence and infectious blood-borne diseases like HIV.

The report found that while 97 percent of the state’s residents were insured, in part due to the state’s 2006 health care law, finding a doctor wasn’t always easy. Only 44 percent of primary care doctors are accepting new patients, and hospital emergency departments, where care is typically more expensive than in a doctor’s office, are increasingly providing primary health services.

The study echoes a report by the Massachusetts Medical Society released last month that found more than half of family primary care practices said they were not accepting new patients this year, the highest it’s been in four years.

Massachusetts Health Council Executive Director Susan Servais said the report tracks 11 health-related factors and makes policy recommendations for lawmakers.

She said an area of particular concern is the rate of violent crime in Massachusetts. She said according to FBI crime data, Massachusetts had the highest rate of violent crime in New England, especially among Hispanic residents and young women.

Servais also pointed to another worrying trend in the slight increase in the state’s poverty level from 9.9 percent in 2007 to 10.3 percent in 2009. The federal poverty level is about $22,000 for a family of four in Massachusetts.

“With one job available for every five people seeking employment … we need to make sure that the programs that are there to protect people are not cut,” she said, pointing to social security and unemployment benefits.

She said there also were some bright spots in the report.

The number of adult and high school smokers continued to drop, and the rate of overweight and obese resident adults inched downward.

There was also good news on the fight against HIV and AIDS.

In 2009 there were just 481 new reported cases of HIV in Massachusetts, compared with 737 in 2006, she said.

The group released the report as Gov. Deval Patrick begins putting together his proposed 2011 fiscal year budget, which is due in January.

Patrick acknowledged on Monday that, with federal stimulus dollars drying up, there will be increased pressure to balance the budget while maintaining critical services — such as finding a way to pay for the state’s substance abuse treatment programs.

Patrick said the state needs to find an additional $43 million to make up that difference after voters opted to repeal the state sales tax on alcohol.

He all but rejected substance abuse advocates’ suggestion to postpone repealing the tax to the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, instead of in January. Patrick wouldn’t reject a second idea — increasing the alcohol excise tax, which hasn’t been changed in decades — although he said it wasn’t being actively discussed.

“These are enormously important programs,” he said. “I’m committed to finding a solution.”