Help for the Uninsured

February 05, 1991

More than 600,000 people living in Maryland have no health insurance. Yet as many as half of them earn more than $20,000 -- enough to afford a low-cost medical insurance policy -- if one were available. But state lawmakers have so bogged down insurance companies with costly benefit mandates that offering a stripped-down option for these Marylanders is impossible.

Even the mere mention of a cheap insurance alternative sends consumer zealots and liberal legislators into a frenzy of protest. They oppose a Blue Cross proposal for low-cost health insurance. Their thinking seems to be that it is better for everyone to drive a Cadillac than permit companies to offer lower-income consumers a basic Model T.

Yet Maryland's uninsured population doesn't give priority to coverage for in vitro fertilization, psychiatric care or chiropractic treatment. The uninsured need the bare essentials, primarily hospitalization coverage. They can afford only a Model T.

Both Blue Cross and the Governor's Commission on Health Care Policy and Financing, headed by Baltimore attorney Eugene Feinblatt, recognize this fact. So, apparently, does organized labor, which reluctantly and belatedly has joined with business groups to endorse the concept of a low-cost health benefit package. Now the trick is to come up with a plan that meets with legislative approval.

The Feinblatt commission has been creative in its approach. Among its suggestions that merit attention are programs for low-income children and pregnant women providing basic sickness care and preventive health benefits.

The commission wants to make small-group insurance policies affordable and accessible to more workers; a "basic benefits" policy for the uninsured, and a sweeping plan in which companies would provide health insurance or pay a payroll tax. This last option would be tried only as a last resort.

It is time for the legislature to loosen its grip on the health-insurance industry and let companies offer stripped-down medical care policies. Maryland's 600,000 uninsured deserve a chance to purchase basic, low-cost health insurance.

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