Was last week's special Senate election in Massachusetts a referendum on health care reform? Many national commentators assume it was. But if so, Bay State voters' message to the nation on this issue is complicated.

Was last week's special Senate election in Massachusetts a referendum on health care reform? Many national commentators assume it was. But if so, Bay State voters' message to the nation on this issue is complicated.

After all, Massachusetts already has health care reform along the lines as that proposed in bills passed by the House and Senate. The stress is on getting as many people as possible covered, and the number with health insurance in Massachusetts has now topped 97 percent. It does this through an individual mandate, an exchange where the uninsured can choose between private plans that meet state standards, and subsidies to help make the coverage affordable.

A Washington Post poll of Massachusetts voters taken after the election confirms that the national health care debate was a factor. The poll found 48 percent oppose the proposals making their way through Congress, with 43 percent in favor.

But voters' opinion is less divided on the Massachusetts health care reforms enacted in 2006, with 68 percent supporting the new system, including slightly more than half of those who voted for Brown. Brown himself voted for the state reforms and continues to support them.

Brown's voters may have been supporting his position, which is that other states should solve the problem on their own, like we did, and that a reformed national health system would come at unacceptable expense to Massachusetts taxpayers. It's a flawed argument, in our view, since the national plan would send hundreds of millions in new aid to support the Bay State system and because the cost-containment elements of national health care reform notably missing in the Massachusetts law would benefit everyone. Besides, if we like our reforms, why wouldn't we want our friends and relatives in other states to have them?

The distinction between attitudes toward Massachusetts-style health reform and the debate in the nation's capital may also reflect legislating style. The state bill, approved by a Republican governor and a Legislature dominated by Democrats, was bipartisan; the national bill is anything but.

It also indicates a lack of understanding of what's in the national bill, which shouldn't be surprising. There have been so many health reform bills, so many provisions added, then dropped, so much horse-trading and so much political rhetoric, much of it inaccurate, that most people got sick and tired of the whole business months ago.

Those who helped create health care reform in Massachusetts have long hoped national leaders would learn from our experience. If they think Brown's victory means voters here don't like health care reform, they are learning the wrong lesson.

Speaking of voters' "messages," the Post poll also tested whether last week's vote was a referendum on Barack Obama. The results: 43 percent of Brown voters said they were expressing opposition to Obama, while 55 percent of Coakley voters were expressing support. Translated into votes, Obama took Massachusetts in 2010, as he did in 2008, 579,040 to 496,137.

MetroWest Daily News