|Legislative Q&A: State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
09:20PM / Sunday, August 12, 2012
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, has only been in office a short time and the legislative session has come to an end. But, she says she has accomplished a lot and will be even stronger in the next.
Farley-Bouvier joined the House of Representatives in November after winning a special election. She filled the former seat of Christopher Speranzo, who resigned after being appointed clerk-magistrate at Central Berkshire District Court.
She joined two other legislative newbies — Reps. Paul Mark and Gailanne Cariddi — and longtime Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli to represent Berkshire County.
Highlights from this last session for Farley-Bouvier include health-care cost containment, a three-strike bill and increased budget lines for municipal aid. The representatives have a few months off now before the next formal session begins in January, when she will be moving into her new office in the Dunham Mall, taking a vacation and meeting with residents.
iBerkshires sat down with the 3rd District representative — as we plan to do with the rest of the Berkshire delegation in the coming weeks — to recap what happened this last session.
Q: What do you think the biggest accomplishment the Legislature had?
TFB: Health-care costs without question or doubt. It's a very exciting piece of legislation that just got signed [Aug. 6] by the governor. I think that reforming health-care costs really benefits every area of the economy. So much state dollars, so much business dollars are spent, individual family dollars are spent on health-care costs that we needed to take that on in order for everything else to be able to grow.
Q: Can you explain the bill? What does it do?
TFB: Let me explain some of the provisions because it's a very complicated bill led by Rep. Steven Walsh, a really brilliant, brilliant man who did such a great job getting through all this information and coming up with something that really is going to benefit the people. One thing we know is that a huge driver of costs are unnecessary tests that individuals have and one of the reasons, we're being told by providers, is that they've already had the test. So by implementing the electronic records system, we think we can cut down on a lot of those tests.
Another major provision is creating — sometime, we're going to leave it up to the industry on how they want to do it — is some kind of global payment system. For example, if you are going to go in for a knee replacement and you're 80 years old with a certain health history, then there will be a determination on how much it should cost the provider to do that.
Right now, the providers are paid when you are discharged from the hospital, that's how they get paid. But if you have to come back because of a complication, they get paid again. They are not incentivized to keep you well ... we set up a system where if [patients] are discharged when they are not ready to be discharged or readmitted, it actually benefits the provider. That doesn't make any sense.
So instead, we are going to work to keep people healthy. ... Right now there are no incentives for providers — let's say Berkshire Medical Center — to keep the person healthy except that it is the right thing to do.
There is going to be some very, hopefully, effective streamlining for insurance providers on the coding of all the medical treatments. For example if you have a broken arm, it's coded one way for one insurance carrier and coded another way for another. If it is an inpatient thing or an outpatient procedure, all of these things are coded differently from one provider to another. To just get through all of that, places like BMC spend an enormous amount of resources to try and get through all that paperwork. Often you have more people working in your billing department than hospital beds.
A huge one is that there is money being set aside for wellness. For example, we know now that big companies such as Berkshire Medical Center, I believe Crane paper has this, have wellness programs built in as part of the company's mind set. They serve healthy foods in their cafeteria, they have exercise programs for employees. All these type of things to encourage people to stay healthy but municipalities and small businesses, it is harder for them to be able to do that.
Now there is going to be grant money available for that for let's say, the Chamber of Commerce in Berkshire County could apply on behalf of a consortium of small businesses to provide wellness programs. Things like exercise, quit smoking, nutrition, all those things will be available. What we want is a healthier community in addition to keep the costs down.
Q: What about your role in this bill? What were you arguing for or against?
TFB: I am part of the wellness prevention caucus and that's just an informal group of legislators who promote wellness and the importance of that. I was part of that and my part was mostly learning about it and being able to support the provisions that I particularly important. The behavioral health parts of the bill, I think are important and that was one part I was asking for. Certainly, supporting the hospitals of Western Massachusetts and Berkshire Medical Center, was key. Supporting Smitty [Pignatelli] with his critical care hospitals was important.
Q: Beyond this bill, what other bills were important that were passed or failed?
TFB: I'd like to talk about a couple of smaller ones that maybe aren't on people's radar. One is the prescription monitoring program that was passed, really at the last minute, and we're pleased to have gotten it through. What that does is that physicians who prescribe opiates — right now we have a database set up so they can check to see who else is prescribing for a patient — so now they'd be required to do that for every new patient.
We're being told by law enforcement that the overprescription of opiates is the single biggest law enforcement problem we have in the county. If we can get prescribers and pharmacies on board with helping us monitor this better and more closely, I think we can make some serious inroads on getting these pills off the street.
Something I am particularly excited about and I spent a lot of energy and passion on is the resolution that we passed calling on Congress to amend the U.S. Constitution to declare that in fact corporations are not people and that we should get big money out of politics and return elections to the people. That joint resolution between the Senate and the House was passed and we'll be sending it to Congress. That's just one step in a long process but I do believe that amending the Constitution to return elections to the people is critical. The big money in elections right now is the single biggest threat to our democracy.
Q: Did you accomplish everything you'd hope to accomplish?
TFB: Well, I was on the losing side of something and that is the bottle bill. We wanted that to get passed this session. We had the support of a clear majority of legislators in both the House and the Senate that wanted that passed. We couldn't get it through and that was disappointing. We just have to get geared up again and go for it again next session.
Q: What was the holdup?
TFB: Leadership. The Speaker [Robert DeLeo] had vowed that he would not raise any taxes in this legislative session and he felt it was important to keep that promise. Of course, keeping promises are important but I don't see a deposit on water bottles and ice tea bottles as a tax.
Q: What else is on the agenda for the next session?
TFB: I do think that we're going find as health-care cost reform is implemented that there are going to be some issues with it. So we have to keep on that. There was a subcommittee created just for this and that subcommittee will remain in place to address that.
For me, a No. 1 priority is transportation. Public transportation disparities across the state is just so obvious when you get the viewpoint from the whole state. The amount of money that Berkshire County spends on just the MBTA is amazing. A penny of the sales tax goes to the MBTA so it doesn't matter where you live or what you spend it on. Of that penny, $27.4 million is collected from Berkshire County and sent to the T. I would venture to say that the great majority of my constituents will never, ever, in their life, even once, take the T but we're supplementing that.
We get, in Berkshire County, $1.8 million in funding for our BRTA. For every dollar we sent to the state just for the MBTA, we get seven cents back. That's outrageous. Franklin County is even worse. For every dollar they send to the MBTA, they get two cents back. We have got to come up with a way to even this playing field because it is not like we don't need public transportation in Berkshire County. We have a great need for public transportation.
Our buses stop at 6 o'clock at night, we have no buses on Saturday or Sunday so people who work third shift have to have transportation. I have an employee in Lee that told me — this gentleman lived in Pittsfield and worked in Lee and took public transportation — that when he had to work third shift he would walk. He wasn't able to hold the job because he wasn't able to sustain that. We have the service industry and all these hotels and motels, obviously they need people on weekends. We are not doing our employers well by not having public transportation. We have head ways where it takes an hour and the bus only goes in one direction. We can change that if we had more funding.
It was greatly discussed. It took up an enormous amount of time and energy in the Boston area about MBTA funding and the cuts that were happening there and raising fares. Everyone said that this discussion was only for this year and next year the problem will be even bigger and we have to look at raising more revenue for public transportation.
I believe that whatever additional mechanisms they put into place to raise revenue for the MBTA and public transportation in general is that that money that is raised should stay in the region in which it was collected. They're looking for more money from the Berkshires for public transportation and whatever money they raise here, should stay here. That doesn't mean going back and pulling things like they did last time. They used all this smoke and mirrors. A few years ago they gave the [Regional Transportation Authorities], they said in the budget they would have an additional $15 million but what they did is in their base budget, they just took away $15 million. Now you get to have this $15 million. We can't let that kind of thing happen.
Q: Going back to this past legislative session, is there any particular bill or amendment that you are proud of that went through?
TFB: I came in in November and that was long after bills were filed. Bills tend to get filed in the first three weeks of the session and I came in 11 months after the session started. The one thing that did go through was the transportation bond bill. Rep. [Paul] Mark and I sponsored an earmark for the bike trail and to acquire that land coming through Pittsfield. We are looking forward to getting that.
Q: Can you talk about the budgeting process?
TFB: The budgeting process was very interesting. Something that is important that I took away from that is that some legislatures, and this goes through times and eras, say 'let's have a lot of earmarks' so that senators and representatives go back to their districts and say 'I brought you this, here is the thing I got for you.' This group collectively said, 'we need to get as much money into cities and towns and into school departments.' I'm not going to say there were no earmarks but there were few earmarks and a lot of those were vetoed by the governor.
We want to take all that earmark money and put it to cities and towns. Local aid and Chapter 70 was fully, fully funded and I used to work for the city, I was a city councilor, I really believe that we should be able to do that without having so much bacon. I'm proud to be part of that.
Another part of the budget, and this was from a lot of collective advocacy, there is a line item that is the human service salary reserve and that is for individuals who work for places such as [Berkshire County Arc] and people who work in the service field. They are some of the lowest-paid people that we have in the state and they do such important work. Their salaries are embarrassingly low. We were able to set aside $20 million for that line item. Of course, that only means $165 a year for these individuals but we are very pleased to be able to get that. I took part in that and it was a great learning experience for me to learn how collective advocacy can work in the budget process.
Q: So what is your role now?
TFB: There are several things. One is to get the office put together — chairs would be good, phones would be good. Today I met on the creative community with people throughout the county. I continue to meet with my constituents and getting to know them — I feel like I know my district pretty well but to really get in there and talk about the individual needs of businesses and nonprofit. I am fully on board with the Elizabeth Warren campaign and I've been spending a lot of my time doing that. I am on the ballot this fall, and thankfully unopposed, but I have to pay attention to that, too. And getting ready for the next session.
There are still something that are still pending in the State House for my district that can still go through in informal session so I will be watching for those.