Larger health plan sought

Bill would expand state-subsidized insurance program

19,000 children added

Ceiling on income for eligibility would be raised

February 10, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Moving to reduce the ranks of uninsured Marylanders, the Glendening administration is asking the legislature to provide state-subsidized health coverage to more than 19,000 children in working families.

The proposal, backed by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Senate leaders, seeks to build on a 2-year-old program that insures 63,000 children and pregnant women.

Under the legislation considered by the Senate Finance Committee yesterday, the state would extend coverage beginning in July 2001 to thousands of families earning between $33,000 and $50,000 -- at an annual cost to the state of about $7 million.

If the General Assembly goes along with the proposal, as is expected, Maryland would join New Jersey and Connecticut in covering children in families earning that much.

In a new wrinkle for Maryland, the measure would allow the state to pay a worker's share of the premiums for employer-provided insurance -- something only three other states do. That provision is designed to take advantage of existing private insurance offerings, although it is not clear how many companies would want to take part in such a cost-sharing arrangement.

Everyone enrolled in the Children and Families Health Care Program is covered by managed care organizations that contract directly with the state.

Under the bill, thousands of families newly enrolled in the program would pay premiums ranging from $37 to $46 per month, which would bring in about $10 million.

Lawmakers and administration officials were confident the Assembly would embrace the health care expansion, although tinkering with the proposal is likely.

"There's overwhelming support for expanding coverage to children," said Debbie I. Chang, deputy health secretary. "It's just a question of how to do it."

About 840,000 Marylanders are uninsured, according to advocates involved in the issue. Both Taylor and Glendening have made reducing that number a priority this year.

"It means 19,000 more Maryland children will have basic day-to-day health care," said Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill. The proposed expansion would cost about $30 million a year.

The federal government would provide about $13 million, with the state contributing $7 million. The rest would come from premiums paid by the families covered.

The state took advantage of federal funding two years ago to launch the insurance program. Families with incomes of as much as twice the federal poverty level are currently eligible to have their children insured. That would be a $33,000 income standard for a family of four. The bill would boost that eligibility standard to three times the poverty level, or nearly $50,000.

The only significant opposition to the bill yesterday came from anti-abortion advocates, who said expanding coverage of pregnant women would lead to more state-funded abortions.

Richard Dowling, lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, said, "It [the bill] is a vehicle that would greatly increase abortions."

Morrill, the Glendening spokesman, said the governor was confident the legislature would not change the state's policy, which allows state funding of abortions needed to protect a woman's physical or mental health.

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