Mass. hospitals reporting less free care; profit margins improving

Julie Jette

The state’s health reform efforts appear to have already reduced the amount of free care provided by hospitals, and employers appear to be continuing to offer insurance to employees despite earlier fears, according to new data.

Hospital profit margins also appear to be steadily improving, although on average, teaching hospitals are continuing to do much better than community hospitals.

The information was released by the state Division of Health Care Finance and Policy for the first time yesterday. The state report is now scheduled to be released every three months in an effort to see what effect health reform is having on employees, employers, hospitals and insurance companies.

‘‘A lot of this is establishing a baseline for all of us, so that as reform moves forward we have a good sense of the health care system,’’ said Sarah Iselin, commissioner of the division.

‘‘It’s very helpful to have, particularly if (state regulators) are able to follow through with their ability to put it out on a quarterly basis,’’ said John McDonough, executive director of Health Care for All, an advocacy group in Boston.

Some of the data was collected early last year, and so would show only the earliest effects of changes to the state’s health insurance laws. As of Jan. 1 of this year, individuals faced the loss of their $219 state income tax personal exemption if they could afford to have insurance and didn’t buy it.

In the fall of 2006, the state had already begun signing people up for partially or completely subsidized health insurance policies called Commonwealth Care. As of July 1, people who didn’t have affordable health care options through their employers, but who earn too much to qualify for subsidized care, could begin buying individual policies through a state-sponsored Web site.

According to the report, the state spent $39 million less to provide ‘‘free care’’ at hospitals to people with no insurance between Oct. 1, 2006, and June 30, 2007, than it had spent the same period the year before, a drop of about 8 percent.

That could be one indication that people who had qualified for free care were signing up for insurance.

The report’s value will be more visible in coming months, Iselin said, as trends develop.

‘‘These are key metrics to watch,’’ she said.

The full report can be found at

Julie Jette may be reached at

The Patriot Ledger