Rep. Benson Votes to Pass Balanced House Budget with Investments in Education and Housing, and Funding for District Priorities

BOSTON – On Thursday, Representative Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg) joined her colleagues in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in passing its Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20) state budget. Funded at $42.7 billion, the House budget makes major investments in K-12 education and health care, while allocating funding for district-specific priorities in the several areas, including economic development, transportation, and education.

“I was proud to support the House FY20 budget, which reflects our values as a Commonwealth,” said Representative Benson. “With the nearly 5 percent increase in Chapter 70 funding over last year, and the full funding of the Special Education Circuit Breaker, the House has continued its commitment to supporting our public education system.”

“This fiscally responsible budget balances the needs of communities, families, and individuals across the Commonwealth with smart investments that boost local aid, support our health care system, strengthen education, and protect the environment,” said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D-Winthrop). “I am proud of the work we have done to further our ongoing efforts to combat the opioid crisis and invest in high-quality early education and care. I believe these investments will have a lasting positive effect on the lives of Massachusetts residents for years to come. I want to thank Chair Michlewitz for his diligence and hard work, and my colleagues in the House who were instrumental to this process.”

“This budget meets the Commonwealth’s needs and builds off of past commitments to ensure that our economy remains strong for all of our residents,” said Representative Aaron Michlewitz, Chair of the House Committee on Ways & Means (D-Boston). “We make targeted investments into key elements including education, housing, the environment and women’s health.”

Several of Representative Benson’s amendments for district-specific projects and programs are included in the FY20 House budget, including:

  • $100,000 for the Lunenburg Fire Department to purchase new safety equipment;
  • $165,000 for the removal and replacement of fuel storage tanks in Lunenburg;
  • $100,000 for the renovation of a building in Acton to serve as a community center; and
  • $150,000 for the Advanced Manufacturing Training Program at the Devens campus at Mount Wachusett Community College.

Additionally, amendments for district-specific items co-sponsored by the Representative are included:

  • Prison Mitigation Funding to benefit cities and towns hosting state Department of Corrections facilities (Shirley);
  • $100,000 for elderly and commuter shuttles linking to the MBTA in Acton and Maynard; and
  • $27,000 for water quality monitoring for the Sudbury, Assabet, and Concord Rivers (Acton).

The House continues its commitment to cities and towns increasing Unrestricted General Government Aid (UGGA) by nearly $30 million and providing $5.1 billion in Chapter 70 education funding as part of a $236 million increase for investments in schools over FY19. It also addresses the need for integrated student health and wellness supports, providing $2 million to establish the Supporting Health Alliances Reinforcing Education (SHARE) grant program to connect students to community mental health resources. Additional education allocations include:

  • $329 million for Circuit Breaker Special Education reimbursement;
  • $113 million for Charter School Reimbursement;
  • $73.8 million for Regional School Transportation reimbursement; and
  • $4.7 million for After-School and Out-of-School Time grants.

MassHealth is the single largest investment that the Commonwealth makes in its most economically vulnerable residents. This program provides health insurance for the homeless, the recovering, mothers with children, and the working poor. In addition to funding this vital program, the budget also increases funding for crucial health and human services agencies and providers including:

  • $109.8 million to continue reforms at the Department of Children and Families;
  • $35 million for supplemental rates for nursing homes across the Commonwealth; and
  • $17.9 million for local Councils on Aging to help senior citizens.

The FY20 House budget includes an amendment with new policy language that would give the Executive Office of Health & Human Services (EOHHS) and the Health Policy Commission (HPC) more tools to lower drug costs in the MassHealth program. The amendment authorizes EOHHS to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical manufacturers for supplemental rebates to lower overall prescription drug spending within the MassHealth program. EOHHS may also hold a public hearing on the supplemental rebate in the event that the manufacturer and EOHHS cannot come to terms on a supplemental rebate for any drug projected to exceed the per-year cost thresholds.

This process would allow members of the public to weigh in by providing testimony. If EOHHS and the manufacturer still cannot reach an agreement, EOHHS has the option to refer the matter to the HPC for a thorough investigation into the pricing of the drug. The HPC would then be able to make a determination regarding whether the price of the drug is unreasonable or excessive.

If the HPC determines a manufacturer has priced a drug unreasonably or excessively, and the manufacturer again declines to agree to terms for a supplemental rebate amount, EOHHS may subject the drug to actions such as requiring prior authorization, promotion of generic alternatives, and prescription quantity limits. If at any point a drug manufacturer fails to provide the HPC with requested information, they can be fined up to $500,000.

The budget continues the Legislature’s commitment to address the opioid epidemic – a public health crisis that has touched every corner of the Commonwealth. The House budget gives all EMS and ambulance companies access to discounted naloxone, making it more available for use in the field. In addition, the budget includes:

  • $143.9 million for the Bureau of Substance Addiction Services, which will help create five new recovery centers across Massachusetts; and
  • $49.4 million for the Substance Use Disorder Trust Fund.

For the first time in nearly 20 years, the budget will increase the Commonwealth’s contribution to the Community Preservation Act, which will ensure that over $36 million more will be distributed for projects across the Commonwealth, and help raise the state’s match up to 30 percent for investments in open space, affordable housing and historic preservation.

The budget will now go to the Senate, with a final FY20 budget expected to be passed before July 31.

Rep. Benson Votes to Fund Health Clinics Endangered by Federal Policy Changes to Title X Program

BOSTON – State Representative Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg) voted Wednesday to make up to $8 million in funding available to reproductive health and family planning clinics in Massachusetts. The move to support the dozens of clinics across the state comes after the Trump Administration issued a new regulation that would effectively cut all federal funding for any reproductive health clinic that also provides abortion services.

The House of Representatives passed the supplemental funding bill, H.3638, by a 140-14 margin. In addition to appropriating up to $8 million to support Title X health clinics through June of 2020, the bill also requires the Secretary of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance to issue quarterly reports on expenditures to health centers receiving the funding.

“75,000 people in Massachusetts depend on health centers that receive Title X funds for reproductive care, preventive screening, and treatment. These are mostly women, mostly low-income, and many of them live in rural areas with limited access to health care,” said Representative Benson, who serves as the House Chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. “I’m proud that the House has stepped in to make up the funding deficit that will be caused by this irresponsible and unnecessary policy decision at the federal level. I’m grateful to Speaker DeLeo and Ways and Means Chairman Michlewitz for their leadership and commitment to preserving Title X health centers.”

The federal Title X Family Planning Program was established in 1970, and provides grants to health clinics to fund contraception, cancer screening, sexually transmitted disease testing, and other services for mostly low-income people. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human services, at the direction of the Trump Administration, issued new regulations that would prohibit Title X from giving funding to providers who offer or refer patients to abortion services. The regulation put thousands of health care centers across the United States in danger of closing, including 93 in Massachusetts.

Rep. Benson Votes to Ban Conversion Therapy, End Welfare Cap on Kids

BOSTON – State Representative Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg) voted Wednesday to ban the use of conversion therapy on minors and remove the welfare cap imposed on benefits for children, in two separate bills passed by the House of Representatives.

The House passed H.140, An Act Relative to Abusive Practices to Change Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Minors by a 147-8 margin. The bill prohibits licensed therapists from attempting to change a minor’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The abusive practice has been shown to be harmful to LGBTQ children, causing higher rates of depression and suicide. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have already banned conversion therapy.

”I was proud to vote in favor of this legislation to protect children in Massachusetts,” said Representative Benson. “This bill will ensure that children in the Commonwealth do not suffer through the abusive, unscientific methods commonly used in conversion therapy.”

H.140 was referred to the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing, which is Chaired in the House by Representative Benson. The Committee recommended the bill ought to pass before referring it to House Ways and Means.


The House subsequently passed H.3594, An Act to Lift the Cap on Kids, by 155-1. This legislation would eliminate a cap placed on welfare benefits adopted in 1995 that prevents families from receiving additional assistance for children born while the family is already receiving assistance.

“Getting rid of the benefit cap is the right thing to do,” said Representative Benson. “There are more than 8,000 children in low-income families currently being denied benefits that they are otherwise eligible for.”

Of the 24 states that imposed family benefit caps in the 1990s, eight have reversed course and eliminated them. The Legislature passed a bill twice last session to eliminate the cap, but Governor Baker vetoed the legislation.

Rep. Benson Named Chair of Health Care Financing

BOSTON – State Representative Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg) has been named the House Chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing.

“I’m honored that Speaker DeLeo has named me to serve as the House Chair of this important Committee,” said Representative Benson. “I’m looking forward to collaborating with my Senate counterpart, Chairwoman Cindy Friedman, and the Committee members. We have a big job ahead of us and we’ll be working to address the high cost of health care and craft policy solutions that will benefit all residents of the Commonwealth.”

The Joint Committee on Health Care Financing considers all matters concerning the direct funding of health care policy and programs, including Medicaid, MassHealth, and other public health assistance matters. Health care makes up approximately 43% of the Commonwealth’s annual budget, and has been the fastest growing budget category in the past decade.

Representative Benson has previously served as the House Chair of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, the House Chair of the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, and the acting House Chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. She was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2008.

Rep. Benson’s Legislation for the 2019-2020 Session

BOSTON — Last month, State Representative Jennifer Benson filed 17 bills in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Building on her record as a champion for energy issues, five of her bills address energy and environmental policy in the Commonwealth, including her ambition carbon pricing bill, which has garnered more than 100 cosponsors.

Energy and the Environment

AN ACT TO PROMOTE GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE AND REDUCE CARBON EMISSIONS

There is worldwide agreement among scientists and policymakers that the Earth is warming at an unsustainable rate due to human activity. In 2008, Massachusetts passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) and pledged to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. This bill puts a price on carbon emissions to incentivize a move toward renewable energy and help us meet or exceed the GWSA emissions target. 70% of the collected price is rebated to consumers and businesses, and 30% is dedicated to a Green Infrastructure Fund for local investments in renewable energy projects that will further reduce emissions and stimulate the economy. There are built in protections for low and middle income households, those who live in rural areas, and export-driven manufacturers.

AN ACT TO PROTECT RATEPAYERS

The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities has approved profit margins for electricity utilities that are significantly higher than our neighboring states. The Department has also approved automatic annual rate increases for Eversource 1.5% higher than the rate of inflation. This bill caps the profit margins of utilities at the average of our neighboring states (currently ≈9.2%), which will save ratepayers money and incentivize utilities to invest in renewable energy.

AN ACT TO ESTABLISH RATE OPTIONS TO REDUCE CUSTOMER COSTS AND LOWER PEAK DEMAND

This bill requires utility companies to offer on-peak/off-peak rate structures so ratepayers can save money by changing their energy consumption habits. This also incentivizes the use of electric cars, which typically charge during off-peak hours, as well as the usage of energy storage and the purchase of smart appliances.

AN ACT PROMOTING LOCAL ENERGY INVESTMENT AND INFRASTRUCTURE MODERNIZATION

The energy market in Massachusetts is undergoing a significant transformation as distributed generation upends the historical model of centralized generation. This bill requires utilities to update the electrical grid for the 21st century and implement technologies that support the decentralization of generation, thereby allowing for more interconnection of renewables.

AN ACT TO INCREASE THE USE OF ZERO EMISSION VEHICLES IN THE COMMONWEALTH

Current law required 50% of all vehicles in the state fleet to be hybrids or use alternative fuel by 2018. This requirement was not met. This bill sets escalating, achievable yearly benchmarks, starting with 15% of vehicles in FY2020, with an end goal of 50% set in FY2026.


Health Care and Public Health

AN ACT RELATIVE TO DIABETES PREVENTION

In Massachusetts, more than 700,000 people have diabetes. This bill directs state agencies under the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to collaborate on the creation of a Diabetes Action Plan to better identify and understand the impact of diabetes in the state. This information will be used to develop public health strategies to reduce the frequency of diabetes among residents of the Commonwealth.

AN ACT EMPOWERING HEALTH CARE CONSUMERS

This bill requires health insurance companies and the Health Connector to provide easily accessible and searchable information about prescription costs in their plans so consumers can make informed decisions when choosing health insurance.

AN ACT RELATIVE TO FAIL FIRST AND PATIENT SAFETY

Currently, health insurance companies can force a patient to try a less expensive treatment before agreeing to pay for a prescribed treatment. This practice is called “step therapy” or “fail first”. In some cases, requiring a patient to follow a step therapy protocol may have adverse and even dangerous consequences. This bill creates guidelines to provide a way for doctors to override insurance companies so a patient can more quickly access the medication originally prescribed for them.

AN ACT ENSURING ACCESS TO MEDICATIONS

This bill amends the “Any Willing Provider” law to close the “specialty medication loophole”, thereby allowing community pharmacies to fill prescriptions for specialty medications such as biologics, as long as the pharmacy can meet the standards required for handling and administering the drugs. This will make it easier for patients to access medications that treat many common autoimmune diseases and other conditions.

AN ACT TO ADDRESS THE FINANCIAL STABILITY OF THE HEALTH SAFETY NET

The Health Safety Net program allows acute care hospitals and health centers to provide essential services to the uninsured and underinsured. However, in recent years, the program has not been adequately funded. This bill strengthens the program by reinforcing the requirement that the Unemployment Assistance Trust Fund contribute at least $30 million per year to the program, and splitting the responsibility for funding shortfalls between hospitals and surcharge payers.

AN ACT RELATIVE TO CO-PAY ASSISTANCE

This bill makes permanent a provision in a bill enacted last year that allows co-pay assistance, often in the form of coupons, for prescription medications without generic alternatives.


Election Reform

AN ACT PROVIDING A LOCAL OPTION FOR RANKED CHOICE VOTING IN MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS

This bill gives cities and towns the option to use ranked choice voting (RCV) in municipal elections. In RCV, voters rank as many choices as there are candidates. If their first choice can’t win, their vote counts toward their next choice, and so on, until a candidate clears the 50% mark. RCV has been implemented state-wide in Maine and has been used in dozens of jurisdictions across the country.

AN ACT RELATIVE TO ELECTION DAY REGISTRATION (SATELLITES)

This bill allows people who have moved, have errors in their registration, or have never been registered to register and vote at their polling place on Election Day, or at a designated satellite early voting location before Election Day. This will increase voter turnout at little to no cost to municipalities or the Commonwealth.


Higher Education

AN ACT TO AUTHORIZE STATE UNIVERSITIES TO OFFER CLINICAL AND PROFESSIONAL DOCTORATE PROGRAMS

Currently, Massachusetts prohibits state universities from offering doctorate level programs. In the current job market, there is an increasing need for employees with higher levels of education, even for entry level positions. This bill aligns our state universities with those across the country by allowing them to offer clinical and professional doctorate degree programs.

AN ACT ESTABLISHING A STUDENT TUITION RECOVERY FUND

This bill creates a Student Tuition Recovery Fund to help Massachusetts students who have been defrauded by for-profit schools. The Fund lets eligible students recover tuition and other costs if a for-profit school they’re attending closes, fails to provide the services promised, or violates state law.


Other Bills

AN ACT TO ESTABLISH A MOTORCYCLE SAFETY FUND

This bill creates a dedicated Motorcycle Safety Fund that will provide $150 rebates to junior motorcycle operators who successfully complete a safety course. The fund is financed by a $2 premium paid by motorcyclists on their annual registrations.

AN ACT RELATIVE TO WHOLESALE ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE PURCHASES

This bill allows a single entity which owns two or more retail package store licenses to cross accumulate purchases to obtain the higher quality discount.