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Mass. launches next program to expand coverage


BOSTON--Massachusetts on Tuesday launched the next--and possibly most crucial--program to help the state achieve near-universal health care coverage within a few years.

Under the new program, called Commonwealth Choice, state residents will be able to choose from a variety of health care plans offered by six carriers and available through the Commonwealth Connector, an independent state authority created to help implement the state's 2006 health care law.

Initially, Commonwealth Choice will be available only to individuals and employers of any size that want to offer health care coverage in which employees pay the entire premium through pretax contributions. Later this summer, the program will be made available to employers with fewer than 51 employees and who will pay part of the premium.

While the plans are not subsidized by the state, premiums--due to competitive bidding and other factors--in some cases will be substantially lower than what individuals previously were paying in the nongroup market, Connector Authority officials say.

The program also could appeal to larger employers that, to avoid certain financial penalties, will have to begin offering coverage to employees--typically part-time employees--by July 1 to whom they previously did not extend group coverage.

State residents who cannot show they have health insurance by Dec. 31, 2007, will lose their personal exemption on their 2007 income taxes, worth $219, and a much greater penalty in future years.

The launch of Commonwealth Choice comes as nearly 70,000 people have enrolled in a sister program, called Commonwealth Care, in which Massachusetts subsidizes--in some cases completely--the health insurance premiums of low-income uninsured state residents.