From Sentinel and Enterprise
By Amanda Burke
FITCHBURG -- The three Democratic candidates for the Worcester and Middlesex District state Senate debated Wednesday several issues at play nationally and in Massachusetts, expressing divergent stances on transportation and health-care reform.
The debate at Fitchburg State University's Kent Hall between Leominster At-Large City Councilor Susan Chalifoux Zephir, Fitchburg City Council President Michael Kushmerek, and Michael Mahan, a former director of client services at a Marlboro-based software company, comes less than two weeks before the Democratic special election on Nov. 7.
The candidates were asked how they would help residents pay for health-care coverage after President Donald Trump last week eliminated $146 million in federal subsidies to reduce insurance premiums for low-income individuals.
All three candidates said accessing health care is among the most basic human rights.
Mahan, a trustee at Health Alliance Hospital, said fixing the statewide health insurance market as the federal government "chips" away benefits of the Affordable Care Act would be his first priority if elected.
"It's out responsibility in Massachusetts to make sure that we have a system that's going to work for all our residents," he said.
Mahan was the only candidate who did not to express support for single-payer health care in Massachusetts.
Moving to an entirely public health-care system would eliminate the private insurance market and put thousands of people out of work, he said.
"I think that in order for single payer to work the care would have to be assumed by the state government as well, and I don't think that's a state government's role," said Mahan.
Chalifoux Zephir said the government must assist those who will not be able to afford coverage following elimination of federal health-care subsidies.
She said lawmakers must be "aggressive in how we contain health-care costs," and said she does not believe insurance companies should make a profit.
She said Medicare for all would end the profit-making insurance market, and said government must figure out a way to administer medical benefits.
"I am all for eliminating profits from health insurance from health care. I think we need to figure out a mechanism for the administration of those benefits, and I think it needs to not be through insurance companies," she said. "I would prefer not to prop up insurance companies and their profits."
Kushmerek called a Medicare for all model the "long-term plan," and said the state should look for ways to trim costs as it tackles the funding gap created by the loss of federal subsidies.
He tossed out the option of bolstering access to community-based health services for elderly people to reduce the number of those living in retirement homes.
"We can get them back home," he said, adding that 13 percent of seniors currently in nursing homes could be supported at home for a lower cost.
"That represents savings of hundreds of millions of dollars across the commonwealth, and it would be irresponsible for us not to invest in community-based services," he said.
Moving on to transportation, Chalifoux Zephir reiterated her support for restoring a commuter rail stop in Gardner, and said local transportation must be fully funded.
The candidate said earlier in the debate that if elected the rail stop would be her second priority after fixing the state funding formula for public schools -- an effort Kushmerek said would also be his first priority.
The commuter rail stop, she said, would help revitalize downtown Gardner. She said revenue raised through the Fair Share Amendment -- a measure headed for a vote next year that would place an additional 4 percent tax on annual incomes over $1 million -- could fund the stop.
"The investments that we need to make in transportation include regional transit and more local transportation," she said, adding that one-half of revenues raised by the Fair Share Amendment would go towards transportation.
Mahan and Kushmerek agreed that local transportation through regional transit authorities must be funded fully by the state, but neither support the Gardner rail stop.
"They are significantly under-funded," Mahan said of regional transit authorities like MART, the Montachusett Regional Transit Authority.
He and Kushmerek said the Gardner stop would be too expensive to restore, and could be a fiscal gamble.
"Certainly I would not support an incredible cost of expanding the commuter rail into Gardner," said Kushmerek.
All three candidates said they would be stewards of the arts on Beacon Hill.
Chalifoux Zephir underscored her experience working on the business side of a pair of shows at the WGBH public television station. Mahan highlighted his former role as a member of the board at Thayer Symphony Orchestra. Kushmerek said he worked to increase the "cultural presence" in downtown Fitchburg and would champion the arts at the State House.
The candidates are vying for the Senate seat vacated by Jennifer Flanagan, who, as debate moderator Charles St. Amand of the Sentinel & Enterprise pointed out, filed two pieces of legislation addressing the opiate crisis before leaving her elected post for a spot on the Cannabis Control Commission.
Asked what how they would work to curb the opioid crisis from Beacon Hill, all three candidates advocated increased communication between public and private organizations that come into contact with those struggling with substance abuse.
After losing a friend to opioids, Kushmerek said he is heartened the issue of addiction is getting due attention. He said as state senator he would advocate a "holistic" approach to drug use that emphasizes treatment, drug courts for those in the criminal justice system, and peer recovery services.
Mahan, the only candidate never to have held elected office, agreed, saying access to mental-health services must be increased.
Chalifoux Zephir said she would lobby for a seat on the Special Senate Committee on Addiction Prevention (formerly held by Flanagan) and support facilities that provide detoxification programs, stabilization services and longer-term care. She also backed funding for peer-recovery services.
Candidates were asked in front of an audience of about 100 people whether they support a bill currently being debated that would enact major changes to the state's criminal justice system.
Chalifoux Zephir, saying she had not yet read the bill, did not offer her opinion on measures included in the bill like eliminating minimum sentences for some drug traffickers and decriminalizing some relationships that per current state law constitute statutory rape.
She and Mahan said they supported bail reform. Kushmerek offered the most full-throated endorsement of the effort to reform the criminal justice system. He said he spoke with several chiefs of police who support reducing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders, and establishing programs to keep drug offenders from re-offending.
"I think once they've done their time and are properly rehabilitated, then yes, we need to give them the opportunity to give back to the economy," he said.
Democratic and independent voters can vote for one of the three candidates on Nov. 7. The winner will advance to the Dec. 5 special Senate general election.