Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick On Keeping His State Afloat
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.
As the protests in North Africa and the Middle East continue, we ask again how those protests might affect the fight for more rights and freedom for women. We will ask two prominent women activists from the region for their perspective. That's coming up.
But, first, a Newsmaker interview with the governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick. Along with the rest of the nation's governors, he was invited to a White House meeting with the president to talk first and foremost about the economy and jobs. These are daunting times for governors. Most are wrestling with huge budget deficit, so there are calls for deep spending cuts, cuts that for some may threaten the livelihoods of workers and the unions that serve them.
So it's no surprise that the protests spreading around the country after beginning in Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago are in the minds of those who have been attending the National Governors Association meeting here in Washington, D.C. It's the first meeting of that bipartisan group since last November's elections.
Massachusetts's governor Deval Patrick was there, and he's with us on the line. And I also want to mention that we spoke with him before the meeting with President Obama.
Welcome, and thanks so much for your time.
Governor DEVAL PATRICK (Democrat, Massachusetts): Michel, thank you for having me. How are you?
MARTIN: I'm very well. Thank you.
Gov. PATRICK: Great. Good.
MARTIN: Now, obviously, we want to talk about what's going on in Massachusetts, but I did want to get your take on the confrontations that started in Wisconsin, and then have spread to Ohio and Indiana between public employee unions and the governors. Why do you think this is happening?
Gov. PATRICK: Well, you know, I guess from where I sit, it's a bit of a sideshow, frankly, Michel, because we have had an accumulated budget gap of $13 billion on an annual budget of $30 billion, and it has meant that we've had to make the same kinds of difficult choices that other governors have made. But we have joined with the public employee unions, and as a result, they have helped us close that budget gap now.
And our budget is now balanced. Our bond rating has remained high, and, in fact, gotten stronger. We're the only state in the nation to have done so. We worked with the public employee unions to fix the pension system and to - get concessions and wages to reform the education system so there was more flexibility and accountability in the classroom.
They don't like everything that we're having to do, to be sure, the union leadership, but they understand and I understand that we're all in this together. So we take a very different approach. Our thing is about solving problems, not demonizing anybody.
MARTIN: You actually appeared in person at a public employee rally at the state House in Massachusetts - which is, in part, held in solidarity with the people in Wisconsin - to say: I'm here to deliver the message that we don't need to attack public sector workers to make change for the people of the commonwealth. So is your assessment that the showdown really isn't about the budget?
Gov. PATRICK: The showdown is not about the budget, certainly not in Massachusetts, because we have shown that we can make the hard decisions and make them wisely by bringing people together. And, frankly, at any time - but particularly at a time like this, Michel, a fiscal crisis, in many respects, and financial stress - it seems to me we ought to be turning to each other and not on each other.
And as I say, that difference in approach is the reason why we have delivered four budgets now that were responsible, balanced and on time. Our bond rating has strengthened. It was already strong. We're first in the nation in student achievement and health care coverage for our residents. We're growing jobs faster than almost every other state in the country.
MARTIN: Well, can I just clarify one thing, though? You said that the budget is balanced, but there have reports that there is a deficit for the upcoming fiscal year. Can you just clarify that for me?
Gov. PATRICK: I absolutely can. Every single year, we have had the same kinds of budget challenges that every other state has had, and we have delivered our budgets working with the legislature and lots of constituencies on time, responsibly and in balance. This year, we have a gap we've had to close, and my ledger proposal is a balanced budget proposal. And I'm confident that as we work through to the final budget coming up, Michel, which we have to do by the end of June, we will again find a common ground and be on time, and it will be balanced.
MARTIN: You have had to ask, you know, workers to make concessions. For example, you've cut education benefits for police officers and curbed some of their outside work. You've asked state workers to pay more for their health benefits. You've directed them to take furlough days, which is something that a number of states have done. What were the hardest calls for you?
Gov. PATRICK: Look, the business of rebalancing who pays what share of health care cost is fair and appropriate. We have more aligned what public sector workers do with what is happening in the private sector. But it's important we not be distracted from the larger question, which is that health care costs are too high for everybody. And so we've moved on to the bigger question, which is how to get system costs down and get those savings passed on to consumers.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
I'm speaking with the governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick. We caught up with him while he's attending the winter meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington, D.C. We're talking about the challenges facing states in general, and, of course, his own state, Massachusetts.
I want to talk about health care now. You alluded to the fact that health care spending accounts for a very large part of the state budget.
Gov. PATRICK: Yes.
MARTIN: Massachusetts was one of the innovators that led the way in comprehensive - near universal, let's put it this way - health insurance. And, in fact, in some ways the Massachusetts experiment has been the model for what the federal government has done and what the Congress has done in trying to make health insurance more broadly, you know, available around the country. But that initiative, the federal initiative has been under attack in the courts by a number of states.
And even the Massachusetts experience has been under attack. For example, recently, Mike Huckabee - a former, you know, Republican presidential candidate - has criticized your predecessor, Mitt Romney, who was in the governor's chair at the time that the health care overhaul passed Massachusetts, saying that this is a disaster, that it just doesn't work. It eats up too big of a share of the budget, and it needs to be scrapped. I'd just like to ask you your assessment of how it's going in Massachusetts and what this portends for the rest of the country.
Gov. PATRICK: Well, first of all, I am very proud of the fact that 98 -over 98 percent of our residents are insured today. Over 99 percent are children. There's no other state in America that can touch that. And we did that because a broad coalition across the political spectrum - a governor, a Democratic legislature, a group of business people and policy wonks and patient advocates and regular old citizens - came together to invent health care reform in Massachusetts, and then they stuck together to adjust it as we've gone along.
And I'm very, very proud of what it's delivered. You don't have to worry anymore in Massachusetts about being thrown off your health insurance plan if you get sick or not being able to get insurance because you have a pre-existing condition, or a whole host of the (unintelligible) - you know, going bankrupt if you get very sick. We have solved those issues because in Massachusetts, we saw a different choice than the usual two, which was between a perfect solution and no solution at all.
And if you control for the increases in premiums, which has been a problem across the whole nation, it has added about one percent to the state budget, which is what was forecast. The problem of health care cost is not because of health care reform. That is a problem everywhere in this country where premiums are going up far faster than the rate of inflation, and that is the next frontier and what we've undertaken to attack just in the last few weeks.
So I'm really excited, because just as, Michel, we have shown the way on how to deliver a universal health care for our residents, I think we're going to crack the code on cost control, as well.
MARTIN: Well, give an example, though, of how. I mean, one of the things you've tried to do is shift - I don't know if you agree with my characterizing it this way, but you said that the burden on employers and consumers is unacceptable. And so you're trying to curtail the payments to doctors, you know, in hospitals.
And the concern there, of course, is that people will just get out of the business. They won't want to continue to provide service. So...
Gov. PATRICK: Well, it's interesting you say that because the hospitals and the clinicians are very supportive of the approach we've taken, which is to move - is create different incentives, really, in the health care industry so that we're paying for the outcomes and the quality of care rather than the quantity of care.
Right now, you get paid for the number of tests you do, the number of specialists and other office visits you have and instead of - and with the pressure that goes with that, to process people in 10 or 15-minute increment. What doctors want and what they believe delivers better care is a much more integrated approach. And that integrated approach also turns out to be less costly.
MARTIN: Well, what do you make of the challenges around the country that some governors and attorneys general have made to the national health care system, which is in fact modeled on what was first instituted in Massachusetts? What do you think that's about?
Gov. PATRICK: You know what I think it's about? I don't think it's about cost at all. I think it's about what kind of country we want to live in. In Massachusetts, we view health as a public good. It gives us a competitive edge and takes a lot of the anxiety and a lot of the hardship out of people's lives that they can have high quality health care they can count on.
And the issue of cost is an issue that is with us whether we have a universal system of not. We believe health is a public good and as a result, we believe health care ought to be universally assessed.
MARTIN: Finally, governor, before we let you go and I understand that you're still in the middle of your meetings and so we appreciate your stepping out to speak with us. You took office at a time when the recession was starting to take hold. It may not have been obvious in many places, but it's certainly obvious now. Do you see any sign that things are getting better?
Gov. PATRICK: I really do, Michel. And I have, you know, we've had the strategy and we've got the results to show for that improvement, as I said. I think we're the only state in the nation whose bond rating has improved since 2007.
And the reason that is important is that it has enabled us to invest in our infrastructure: our roads, rails, bridges, our broadband expansions, our public and affordable housing. These and other kinds of projects are enabling us to create jobs right now, but also to create a platform for economic growth going out into the future.
The investment we're making in the public schools, at the highest levels in the history of the commonwealth, even when the bottom has been falling out so much of the rest of our state budget, is about a simple truth, which is that if you're in the second grade, you don't get to sit out the second grade until the recession is over.
Right now is your chance. And so, if we're going to make a way for right now and for the future, we got to pay attention to those children's needs today. And then, of course, because our economy in the commonwealth is so dependent on brainpower, on our concentration of higher ed and grade K to 12 as well, we have cultivated those innovation industry that need what we have in abundance.
So the biotech, life sciences, IT and the manufacturing related to it and all of that taken together, that strategy is the reason why we've added more jobs just in the last year that in the previous decade, anyone, even the previous decade, and we're growing jobs faster than 45 other states. So, we are recovering, not recovered. I want to be clear about that. You know, there's still a whole lot of people who need a way forward, but we've got a strategy that's working and I'm optimistic about the future.
MARTIN: Deval Patrick is the governor of Massachusetts. He's a Democrat. We were able to catch up with him during a busy meeting of the National Governors Association meeting in Washington. Governor Patrick, thank you so much for joining us.
Gov. PATRICK: Michel, thanks a million for having me. I'll talk to you soon.