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5 percent of Mass. taxpayers uninsured, some hit with fine


Five percent of Massachusetts taxpayers don’t have health insurance, and more than half of those were hit with a new fine under the state’s landmark health care law.

Officials were quick to seize on the numbers Monday, pointing out that the vast majority of taxpayers are insured and were able to continue to claim their personal exemption, worth $219.

Gov. Deval Patrick said Monday that the high number of insured taxpayers shows the 2006 law — designed to require health care for nearly all residents — has made dramatic progress.

“We continue to put one foot in front of the other,” Patrick said. “There are challenges that remain.”

Nearly three percent of the state’s taxpayers — about 97,000 filers — were uninsured even though they could have afforded health care, according to the state. They were stripped of the $219 exemption. Six thousand have filed appeals.

A total of $9.7 million in fines was deposited into a trust fund to help cover the cost of the law.

Two percent of taxpayers — about 62,000 filers — were found not to earn enough for health care and weren’t fined.

The numbers were based on a review of 86 percent of expected tax filers for the year 2007. More than 450,000 tax returns have yet to be processed, including 200,000 taxpayers who have filed for extensions.

Under the landmark law, taxpayers must show they are insured or face a series of increasing penalties.

Nearly 350,000 residents have been added to the ranks of the insured in Massachusetts under the law, which created a subsidized health care program for those earning less than three times the federal poverty level.

The law also created the Health Care Connector to help those earning more to sign up for lower cost, non-subsidized insurance plans.

Penalties for those who can afford health care but continue to refuse will jump in 2008.

Under the law, new monthly fines that kicked in this year could total as much as $912 for individuals and $1,824 for couples by December.

House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi defended the fines, saying the law — the first of its kind in the nation — needs incentives to keep from failing.

“It’s something the whole country is watching,” he said.

The law’s biggest challenge is rising costs.

In 2006, a legislative committee estimated the law would cost about $725 million in the fiscal year starting in July. In his budget, Patrick set aside $869 million, but those overseeing the law have already acknowledged that costs will rise even higher.

Lawmakers are hoping to close the gap in part with a new dollar-per-pack cigarette tax.

Senate President Therese Murray said the success of the law, reflected in the high number of insured taxpayers, means the state has to work harder to rein in health care costs to make sure state spending on the new program doesn’t spin out of control.

“Our success has created a very big challenge for us,” Murray said.

(Associated Press)