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Lawmakers Praise 'Healthy' Session, Despite Setbacks

By Ryan Basen
Capital News Service
Tuesday, April 12, 2005

ANNAPOLIS - The 2005 legislative session may be remembered by health care advocates for what did not happen after the failure of several ambitious policies.

But it was a productive session, lawmakers said, pointing to measures enacted to reduce the number of uninsured Marylanders, make medications more affordable and ease the state's financial health insurance burden.

Lawmakers kicked off the session in January trumpeting plans to import prescription drugs from Canada, launch state funding for stem cell research and make more changes to medical malpractice laws. All of them failed.

Instead the General Assembly approved measures that are not as sexy but may be just as important.

"I'm very proud," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas Middleton, D-Charles. "I think it's one of the best sessions that we've had" addressing health care.

Middleton and Delegate Peter Hammen, D-Baltimore, co-introduced a plan to help Maryland seniors adjust to the termination of a popular state program when a federal program begins in 2006, calling for state subsidies to help provide seniors cost relief for prescription drugs.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich supports the measure and has promised $14 million in general funds for 2006 to finance it.

The Assembly also voted to establish the Maryland Rx Program and to grant Medicaid-discounted prices on medications to many low-income citizens who are ineligible for Medicaid or Medicare.

The Rx plan, sponsored by David Rudolph, D-Cecil, combines state employers, businesses and others in a purchasing pool to negotiate lower costs on drug plans -- and Ehrlich supports it.

"I think it's going to have a significant impact," Middleton said.

Lawmakers also passed a measure to reduce the state's liability in caring for the 740,000 uninsured Marylanders -- which they hope will reduce that number, too -- by requiring employers with 10,000 or more employers in Maryland to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on employee health benefits.

The bill immediately affects only Wal-Mart.

Ehrlich has promised a veto, but the measure passed both chambers with enough support that proponents are confident they can override it.

Maryland is the first state to force companies to contribute to fixing the uninsured problem, Middleton said, but he doubts it will be the last. The conflict, he said, is states want to cut the number of uninsured with declining health care budgets.

"Is there any doubt that government's getting involved in the business side of health care?," he said. "I don't know if the bill that we passed is a good one, but I think it's a plan."

The Legislature also passed a technical measure making it easier for the Maryland Insurance Administration to apply a malpractice reform law enacted just before the session.

But that was as far as the Senate went with malpractice during the session.

The House approved a plan to make it more difficult for health insurers to increase premiums, require neutral experts to testify in court cases and protect physicians' private apologies.

But the bill died in the Senate Rules Committee because leading senators, including President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr., D-Calvert, favored allowing the new law time to take effect alone.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, who initially favored further malpractice reform, on Tuesday said he agreed with Miller.

House Majority leader Kumar Barve and Ehrlich did not.

Barve, who sponsored bills that became part of the House's doomed malpractice plan, promised to introduce them next year.

"I was really disappointed," at the failures, Barve said. "You have to be persistent and keep working at it. I'm not giving up and I expect one day we will succeed."

Two other policies that generated attention but failed this session, stem cell research and the importation of cheaper Canadian drugs, are also likely to make comebacks, according to their sponsors.

The House passed a measure to allocate $23 million in state funds annually to embryonic stem cell research. The money is needed, proponents said, because the federal government only funds less effective adult stem cell research.

But the Senate never voted on the plan because of a threatened filibuster by opponents, many of whom consider embryonic research to be morally wrong -- which frustrated Miller.

"I'm only concerned in the sense that a majority of two committees ruled in favor of the bill and it didn't get a (Senate) vote," Miller said. "I believe in a majority."

Ehrlich said he supports stem cell research in an interview last week and told a radio station Sunday that support includes embryonic research, but noted he has not committed to the idea of state funding.

"The technical aspects worry me," he said. "Is the state the right place to park this?"

Still, with Ehrlich's support, Busch expects the issue to be at the top of the Legislature's agenda next year.

"The debate took place," Busch said, "which we think is very important."

Despite the setbacks, advocates were excited about the overall package of health care measures enacted by the Legislature. Lawmakers, said one leading advocate, seem to be coming around to the notion that the state needs to fix a fractured health care system.

"I think it's been fantastic year," said Glenn Schneider, executive director of the Health Care For All! coalition. "I hope it's the beginning of a long and wonderful health care reform process."

 

Copyright 2005 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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