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House Again Passes Bill To Assist Uninsured

By Ryan Basen
Capital News Service
Thursday, Feb. 24, 2005

ANNAPOLIS - The Maryland House voted Thursday to earmark $70 million annually to help some of the nearly 740,000 uninsured Marylanders get the medical care they need.

Delegate Peter Hammen, D-Baltimore, bill co-sponsor, said the measure stands a good chance of becoming law this year because of a combined effort by key senators and Gov. Robert Ehrlich.

"This bill represents the strongest effort by the General Assembly to address the uninsured problem in years," said Hammen, vice chairman of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, which recommended the proposal for passage on Feb. 18. "There's no doubt."

The bill was approved without debate, 131-5.

The bill provides medical care for Marylanders earning between 46 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level, principally by providing additional funds to community health resource centers.

The bill would also establish a commission under the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to monitor the process.

The $70 million would be broken down as follows:

-- CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield will contribute $14 million and a $5 million bond bill will fund operating and information technology costs.

-- Kaiser Permanente will contribute $7.6 million and the state will add $15 million in general funds to pay for specialty care services and commission expenses.

-- The Maryland Health Insurance Plan would kick in $11.7 million, with an expected 100 percent federal match, to fund specialty care for the approximately 8,000 people eligible for the Maryland Primary Care Program.

-- The Cigarette Restitution Fund would provide $5 million for tobacco-use prevention and quitting programs and services and to treat cancer.

The $70 million would be applied beginning July 1, 2006. An additional $15 million would be distributed to fund services for the aged, disabled and blind from July 1 to June 30, 2006, only.

The bill was proposed, Hammen said, because the state does not have a wide enough safety net to protect the uninsured.

During a committee hearing Feb. 8, the state physicians' association, MedChi, supported the bill, as did the Maryland Hospitals Association.

CareFirst opposed the bill, said lobbyist Casper Taylor, because it would place the non-profit at a competitive disadvantage in the health insurance market and establish an unfair precedent.

"It's not an appropriate funding mechanism," Taylor said of the $14 million CareFirst input.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce also opposed the bill.

Ronald Wineholt, vice president of government affairs, called the creation of the commission "unnecessary bureaucracy" in a statement and said increased costs imposed on health insurers such as CareFirst would eventually be passed on to consumers.

Sen. Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, sponsored an identical bill in the Senate. That bill is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Finance Committee.

A similar bill passed the House last year, died on the Senate floor.

Hammen said he expects the Senate to amend the new plan. Ehrlich also will likely be involved in shaping it.

Ehrlich would commit general funds to the measure only if he and leading Democratic lawmakers, such as House Health and Government Operations Committee Chairman John Hurson, D-Montgomery, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas Middleton, D-Charles, can reach a consensus on "specifics," said spokesman Henry Fawell.

Fawell declined to elaborate on what those specifics are.

"The governor is very optimistic about the possibilities of reaching a compromise," Fawell said. The bill "has good potential in terms of health care access around the state . . . . But much work remains to be done."



Copyright 2005 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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