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STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

GAS LEAK FIX BILL CLEARS HOUSE

Predicting positive public safety, environmental and economic impacts, the Massachusetts House unanimously approved legislation Wednesday aimed at repairing and replacing leaky underground natural gas pipes. There was no debate prior to the 142-0 vote to accept the bill, which was released Monday by a six-member conference committee and could surface for a vote in the Senate on Thursday. Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee Co-chairman Rep. John Keenan said the bill would lead to ratepayer savings by preventing gas worth millions of dollars from being wasted, cut down on environmental degradation caused by methane gas releases, and improve public safety by reducing the risks posed by the most hazardous leaky pipes. Keenan said the bill also included mechanisms to facilitate more widespread distribution of natural gas to areas where oil customers may wish to convert to gas, which he said is less expensive. Referencing a deadly natural gas explosion earlier this year in Harlem, N.Y., Keenan said, “First and foremost this is a public safety bill.” Massachusetts, Keenan said, has 5,000 miles of “leak-prone pipe.” In talks with Senate negotiators, lawmakers agreed to a “soft deadline” of about 20 years to complete the replacement and repair of the 5,000 miles of pipe and to make sure state regulators conduct a review “so it’s not too impactful on our ratepayers," Keenan said. – M. Norton/SHNS

UMASS PANEL RECOMMENDS TUTION AND FEE FREEZE

A University of Massachusetts board of trustees subcommittee on Wednesday gave preliminary approval for a freeze in tuition and mandatory fees for students across the system’s five campuses. The Finance Committee voted unanimously to freeze the student expenses after they say the House and Senate made good on a commitment to reach a 50-50 funding split between the university and the state in the annual budget for fiscal 2015 that is still being negotiated. Both versions of the state budget now in conference contain funding for UMass at just under $519 million, though it remains unclear whether lawmakers will appropriate sufficient funding to convince leaders of other public universities to also freeze tuition and fees for the upcoming academic year. According to UMass, tuition and mandatory students fees for in-state undergraduate students at UMass Amherst would be frozen at $13,258, with the total cost of attending college on the flagship campus with room and board totaling $24,215. Tuition and fees would also be frozen at $11,966 at UMass Boston, $11,681 at UMass Dartmouth, and $12,447 at UMass Lowell. The full board of trustees is expected to vote on tuition rates on June 18 when it meets in Dartmouth. – M. Murphy/SHNS

HOSPITALS WANT PUBLIC HEARINGS ON TENTATIVE PARTNERS-AG SETTLEMENT

Hospitals in Massachusetts are protesting the recently announced settlement between Partners HealthCare and Attorney General Martha Coakley, expressing concerns that the deal authorizes an “unprecedented” expansion of the health care company and could lock in high prices. Officials from Atrius Health, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Cambridge Health Alliance, Lahey Health Systems, and Tufts Medical Center announced Wednesday they have formed an coalition, with several other hospitals, and are calling for Health Policy Commission public hearings on the settlement to shed more light on its specifics and impacts before it is approved. “The proposal approves unprecedented expansion of the market’s largest health care system, which, according to the Attorney General herself, has used its market power to cement market-leading prices, resulting in some of the highest health care costs in the nation,” Michael Wagner, president and CEO of Tufts Medical Center, said in a statement. The coalition sent Coakley a letter Tuesday outlining its concerns, including worries that Partners’ acquisition of four suburban hospitals will make its system four times larger than the next largest system in Massachusetts. Coakley in May announced a tentative agreement that places conditions on Partners’ acquisition of South Shore Hospital in Weymouth and Hallmark Health Systems north of Boston, caps Partners’ health care cost increases at the rate of general inflation through 2020, caps physician growth for five years, and blocks the system from further expansion in eastern Massachusetts and Worcester County for seven years. House Majority Leader Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat who helped negotiate the Legislature’s 2012 cost containment law, posted a letter online Wednesday expressing his concern that the deal “trivialized” the transparency lawmakers hoped to inject into the system. Mariano, who on Monday endorsed Democrat Juliette Kayyem over Coakley for governor, said he was “troubled” that the deal was negotiated privately before the commission could finish its cost analysis of the Hallmark acquisition and that Emerson Hospital was omitted from the restrictions on Partners future growth. While the Democratic leader said Partners’ acquisition of South Shore Hospital would give patients in the region access to a top-flight integrated health network, he said he was “less optimistic that prices will remain stable” once the cost growth caps for Partners expire in six years. In a joint statement, Jon Hurst of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts and Bill Vernon of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses urged "full transparency and a public discussion" on the proposed settlement. – M. Norton, Staff/SHNS