Sen. Harriette Chandler highlights legislative agenda at Worcester JCC talk
By Laura Porter
WORCESTER — Senator Harriette Chandler is all about Plan B.
At an hour-long conversation at the Worcester Jewish Community Center on Oct. 24, the five-term senator from Worcester told the assembled group that, “When things aren’t working at the federal level, you have to ask, ‘what are you going to do about it at the state level?’”
Indeed, she reported, while Congress seems to be in perpetual stalemate in Washington, there is a great deal happening these days on Beacon Hill.
“We have been very busy in the Senate!” she said.
Sen. Chandler, who represents the First Worcester District, is currently the Massachusetts Senate Majority Leader. She is also Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Redistricting as well as Co-Chair of the Special Senate Committee on Citizen Engagement. She has long supported and fought for better housing, reproductive and women’s rights, voting rights, and healthcare for all.
She was in Worcester to speak to the weekly breakfast forum for those “65 and better!” known as Man Talk, which meets from 9 to 10 a.m. every Tuesday. On this particular day, Cultural Arts and Adult/Senior Adult director Nancy Greenberg announced that the popular program would now be co-ed and that suggestions for a new name were welcome.
The senator’s pre-election day visit to the Jewish Community Center is traditional, though she herself will not come up for re-election again until the statewide races in 2018.
Elections and voter registration were on her mind, however, and she noted that she had spent the past two weeks registering nearly 600 high school students in Worcester’s eight public and charter high schools. Currently, teenagers in Massachusetts can pre-register to vote at the age of 16 even though they are not eligible until they turn 18. Already in the database, they are then notified of their polling place when the time comes, which makes it more likely that they will vote.
“Getting people involved in civic education and voting registration is terribly important,” said Sen. Chandler.
It is even more important given that “we want to know how this aberration ever occurred,” she said, referring to Donald Trump’s election to the presidency last fall. “Too many people sat home last November.”
She believes that people who do not vote are “not indifferent or cynical but they’re ignorant; they don’t realize that their vote counts. Elections are being won by tiny differences.”
As a critical accompaniment to the push for voter registration in the state, the senator’s civic education bill, Bill S 215, calls for greater focus on civics in public elementary and high school schools and includes an experiential component to give students hands-on exposure with government and politics.
Healthcare has always been one of Sen. Chandler’s chief concerns, and she was deeply involved in the passage of the statewide healthcare access bill in 2006. At the time, Massachusetts was doing well in meeting the three priorities of healthcare: quality; access; and cost. The quality of healthcare in the state had always been at the top, both in the United States and the world. However, although 90 percent of residents were insured, ten percent were not.
“We wanted to make sure they were,” said the senator. “That was the basis of Romney Care. Now 99 percent of all children are insured, which means that they can get preventative care.”
Cost, however, continues to be a problem here as well as across the country. Sen. Chandler and four colleagues have written a bill, heard three weeks ago, that works to increase financial support for community hospitals, which are not compensated by insurance companies at the same level as the larger teaching hospitals. Many have had to close for financial reasons.
The rising costs of the larger hospitals are “being felt by all of us,” she said. The goal of the new bill is “to compress the top and bring the bottom up. The top doesn’t want to be told to keep their growth down, but the community hospitals are saying ‘thank you.’”
She also supports the expansion of access to telemedicine services, which allows patients to be monitored at home and reduces costs.
“Telemedicine is taking the computer technology, the Internet, the best that we have and using it very intelligently,” she said.
Dental care is a separate issue that has drawn her attention. Her sponsorship of a bill calling for the establishment of an advanced dental hygiene practitioner level of practice is a matter of public health. Similar to nurse practitioners or physician’s assistants in medicine, dental therapists are hygienists with advanced training that allows them to do preventative and restorative care. They can also travel, carrying their own equipment, which means they can bring dental care to schools, community centers, senior centers and nursing homes, among other sites.
“These are patients whom nobody sees,” said Senator Chandler. “It would also be a wonderful thing for people who are homebound.”
For decades, the senator has been a champion of reproductive justice. Most recently, she is the chief Senate sponsor of An Act Advancing Contraceptive Coverage and Economic Security, known as the ACCESS bill.
Under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, there is no co-pay for contraceptives, a provision that is at risk from the threatened repeal of the ACA in Congress. The ACCESS bill preserves free contraception and protects access to coverage for Massachusetts residents in the wake of any changes to federal law. It has been heavily endorsed by the ACLU, NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, and Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts.
At the time of Sen. Chandler’s visit to the Worcester JCC, the bill was waiting for a cost report so that it could be reported out of committee. She said that, “all of the legislature wants this done quickly.”
Indeed, the Massachusetts House overwhelmingly passed the ACCESS bill on Nov. 8, and the Senate followed suit unanimously on Nov. 14. It now awaits the signature of Governor Charlie Baker, who has said that he intends to sign it.