Schaefer drops plans for health care reform bill

February 19, 1994|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Sun Staff Writer

The Schaefer administration has backed off plans to introduce new health care reform legislation during this year's legislative session.

As recently as two weeks ago, aides to the governor were drafting a bill that would have required all Maryland employers to offer their workers health insurance, though not necessarily to pay for it.

The measure also would have extended reforms adopted for small businesses last year to individual Marylanders who have difficulty obtaining health insurance.

The justification for new legislation was that such changes would help Maryland argue that its laws should remain in effect -- be "grandfathered in" -- even if Congress adopts a national health care reform law.

But different aspects of the proposal drew heated opposition from surprised health care industry lobbyists, who said they had been led to believe no substantive changes in last year's reforms would be proposed this session.

Moreover, introduction of such potentially controversial legislation so late in the 90-day session -- which will be half over in a week -- prompted lawmakers and lobbyists to complain there was not enough time to give the issues sufficient consideration.

"There was just a general feeling it [was] too late," said Nelson J. Sabatini, the state health secretary. "What we would get out of it wasn't going to make that much difference in improving our position of being grandfathered."

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said he believed the idea was dropped partly because the governor wasn't willing to rile the business community.

"The people on the second floor [of the State House] who advise the governor were concerned about the political ramifications of demanding anything out of the business community in an election year," Mr. Taylor, an Allegany Democrat, said.

But health industry lobbyists and other lawmakers said it would not be wise to consider new, potentially sweeping changes before many of last year's reforms are even in place.

A year ago, the General Assembly pushed through sweeping legislation aimed primarily at improving the chances that employees of small businesses will have access to and be able to afford health insurance.

The law requires insurers, starting July 1, to offer Maryland's small businesses a standardized package of health benefits for their workers. Employers do not have to pay for the coverage. But the fee charged by insurers must be set using a pricing

technique that is designed to make the policies more affordable.

Other key provisions are that workers must be sold policies if they apply, and the policies must be renewed upon demand. And workers cannot be denied coverage due to a pre-existing medical condition, such as diabetes.

The legislation went much further, setting up a powerful health care commission with authority to collect data on medical procedures and charges and, under certain circumstances, to regulate fees. The commission has developed a standard benefits package for small businesses, but insurers have not priced it yet.

President Clinton has proposed his own sweeping health care reform bill, which, among other controversial provisions, would require all employers to offer their workers insurance and pay 80 percent of the tab.

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