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Health Advocates See Fears of Cuts Evaporate

By Ryan Basen
Capital News Service
Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2005

ANNAPOLIS - Fearing massive cuts to health care services when Gov. Robert Ehrlich announced the state budget, Glenn Schneider stood in Lawyers Mall Wednesday morning and wondered aloud to a small crowd of supporters:

"Will the governor use his budget as a weapon of mass destruction?"

But as it turned out, the worst fears of Schneider, executive director of the coalition Health Care For All!, were unjustified.

When Ehrlich announced his $25.9 billion 2006 budget Wednesday afternoon, he included a 9 percent increase in Medicaid funding and a 6.6 percent hike in community services for the developmentally disabled. Overall, the budget includes $7.4 billion for health care, 27 percent of the total $25.9 billion budget.

Earlier in the day, Schneider led a 20-minute vigil, where he noted that cutting Medicaid funding could destroy Maryland's health care system and called on Ehrlich to expand the state's health care services instead of cutting them.

With a $371 million increase in spending for Medicaid (to $4.3 billion), Ehrlich promised to provide service to about 644,000 Marylanders. Other budget increases in health care include an additional $5.2 million for juvenile services and $9.4 million more for the Women, Infant and Children program.

"I'm very happy with what I see," said Delegate Charles Boutin, R-Harford, a member of the House Health & Government Operations committee. "I think people are going to be surprised . . . It's a healthy increase" in spending on health care.

Ehrlich had implied in the fall that he would ask for cuts in health care spending with the 2006 budget. After the governor introduced the budget, Boutin and fellow House health committee member Charles Weldon, R-Frederick, were initially pleased at its commitment to health care services, especially Medicaid.

"That astounded me," Boutin said.

"My expectation was that there would be a slight increase," Weldon said, "but nothing like what we saw today . . . We're talking about a substantial commitment to people who need care."

Schneider, however, was not yet satisfied with the budget changes. He was encouraged to hear of the increases, but withheld further comment on the budget until Health Care For All! and the Baltimore-based advocacy group to which it belongs, Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, has thoroughly examined it.

Schneider questioned whether the budget's dramatic increases masked any health care cuts. Health Care For All! ultimately wants all residents of the state to have "access to quality, affordable health care."

"I will be first person in line to say, 'Thank you, Governor,' if he put money in the budget," Schneider said. "Because that's the first step."


Copyright 2005 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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