State health money swept into general fund

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BOSTON — More than $50 million intended to increase health insurance coverage has been targeted as a budget-balancing measure, and officials are tight-lipped on why that money is available for use.

The $53 million in the Commonwealth Care Trust Fund is part of $145 million apparently being swept into the state's General Fund to address a gap in this year's $39.25 billion budget. Both the fund's trustee -- Administration and Finance Secretary Kristen Lepore -- and the agency whose programs it supports have declined to answer questions about why the money is available for general spending purposes.
"That would be outside my purview," Health Connector Executive Director Louis Gutierrez, a top Baker administration appointee, said when asked Wednesday why the money was not spent. "That would really be the secretary, Secretary Lepore."
At the request of the News Service, Lepore's office last week identified 12 accounts containing a total of more than $145 million that were being swept. Since then, a Lepore communications aide has declined to respond to questions about the trust fund sweeps.
The biggest sweep amount is $53 million from the Commonwealth Care Trust Fund, money described in administration documents only as "unspent."
The Commonwealth Care Trust Fund collects revenue from employer medical assistance contributions, transfers from the Health Safety Net Trust Fund, and penalties paid under the law requiring health insurance coverage. Its money is spent on programs administered by the Health Connector Authority to increase health coverage for Massachusetts residents. Lepore is statutorily designated as the fund's trustee.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 189,000 Massachusetts residents, or 2.8 percent of the population, do not have health insurance.
To cover a non-tax revenue shortfall and spending deficiencies, Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday slashed $98 million in spending from this year's $39.25 billion budget. As the administration grapples with sluggish tax collections and spending demands that it says were unfunded by the Legislature, little detailed information has been made available about other steps it has taken to plug a nearly $300 million shortfall identified in October.
Lepore, Baker's budget chief, in October identified a $294 million gap she said her office would close with "trust sweeps, settlements, non-tax revenue, smaller transfers (determined via statutory formula) to authorities due to the lower sales tax projection, and payroll savings."
A voluntary buyout program that offered state workers $5,000 or $15,000 payments to leave their jobs was designed to generate $25 million in payroll savings, though more than three weeks after the Nov. 14 deadline, officials have not said if that target will be met. Baker on Wednesday quantified interest in the program for the first time, saying more than 500 people have applied and predicting the program would lead to savings.
The fiscal 2017 budget authorized a transfer to the General Fund of up to $110 million from the Commonwealth Care Trust Fund, along with smaller transfers from four Department of Mental Health trust funds.

[Michael Norton contributed reporting]


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