Comerford named Legislator of the Year for bills supporting seniors

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 01-06-2023 5:53 PM

For her efforts to advance bills that support seniors, the Massachusetts chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys has honored state Sen. Jo Comerford with its Legislator of the Year award.

In the last legislative session, the Northampton Democrat worked with MassNAELA to advance Bill S.748, which is designed to help seniors and people with disabilities retain in-home care services, and Bill S.749, which would limit MassHealth’s estate recovery program to federal minimums to ensure low-income individuals can remain in their homes after a family member’s death.

Comerford said it’s a “tremendous honor” to receive the award from MassNAELA, adding that she has been lucky to work with the “gravitas and skill” of a dedicated advocacy organization like the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.

“Nothing happens in the State House unless there’s people power behind the work, developing the ideas, advocating for it, making the cases for it and pushing us to do it,” Comerford said. “MassNAELA is among the best in terms of the advocacy community that I’ve seen and I’ve been privileged to work on a number of bills with MassNAELA that have been profoundly complex and really necessary.”

Pursuing these bills, Comerford said, resulted from hearing “story after story” from her constituents, who would say they were “afraid they were going to lose their coverage and have nowhere to go.” From there, Comerford and her team researched current legislation; met with advocates, and built a base of support as they prepared to bring the bills to the Senate floor.

In a statement, MassNAELA highlighted Comerford’s position as the lead sponsor of the bill seeking to limit the MassHealth estate recovery process, which she called “bordering on insane.”

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Currently, MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, seeks repayment of all medical expenses paid for an individual when they die. Estate recovery is federally mandated, but it only requires nursing home costs be recovered. Comerford said MassNAELA worked with her and her staff to develop the bill, which would limit MassHealth to the federal minimum.

“The MassHealth estate recovery bill came from the story of a constituent. A loved one died and the state came knocking. … I found this bordering on insane,” Comerford said, noting it was a long process to bring the bill to the Senate. “Nothing in policy is ever simple. We had to understand. We had to understand what the federal government was mandating, what we were doing in Massachusetts and what legislation we needed.”

While they have yet to be signed into law, both the estate recovery and in-home services bills were approved by the Senate in some form, which Comerford described as a “huge leap forward.”

“We made huge progress,” Comerford said, noting the estate recovery bill was included in the economic development package that ultimately didn’t pass. “That means we will live to see another day with that bill and I know we’re going to get it done.”

Ahead of the 193rd legislative session, Comerford, who is chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health, said she and her team will be working on several public health bills, including right-to-die legislation that suffered a blow in December when the state’s highest court ruled that the state constitution does not protect a doctor who provides life-ending medication to a patient.

“We’re working somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 really good proposals and some of them are coming back from last session, like end-of-life options and death with dignity,” Comerford explained. “I’m really excited about this upcoming session.”

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