A quiet, persistent passion

Delegate pushes for drug coverage plan for the elderly in Md.

March 25, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

No single sad story persuaded Del. Michael Erin Busch to take up the cause of hundreds of thousands of Marylanders who can't afford prescription drugs.

It was the totality that got to the Anne Arundel County Democrat - the procession of senior citizens and the poor who told him, in testimony and letters to his committee in Annapolis, they can no longer pay for the most essential medications.

They need costly drugs to thin their blood, treat their asthma, lower their cholesterol, steady the beating of their hearts. What, they asked, could be more basic than that?

Those concerns have become a quiet passion for Busch, 54, a former high school football coach and history teacher who chairs the House Economic Matters Committee.

He's now at the center of a complicated debate - involving drug companies, pharmacies and insurance carriers - over how much the General Assembly should do to help, and who would pay.

The issue, likely to be resolved near the close of the 90-day session April 9, is in many ways a test of a committee chairman's ability to prod the legislature into responding to a clear problem.

With so many competing interests in Annapolis and so little time, it's difficult to pass a large new program - however worthy, says John Colmers, former director of the Maryland Health Care Commission, which compiles health spending data.

To do something as ambitious as Busch is proposing, a chairman has to research a plan, sell his colleagues, find money to pay for it, fend off lobbyists and represent his district - all in three months.

Most legislators in the State House consider rising drug prices a concern, thanks partly to constituent complaints.

About 200,000 Maryland recipients of Medicare, the federal health program for the disabled and the elderly, don't have prescription drug coverage, and 600,000 to 800,000 state residents lack health insurance of any kind.

Spending on prescription drugs here increased by 22.2 percent in 1999, according to the health care commission.

But recognizing the problem is no guarantee of legislative success. Approving a real remedy to the problem of soaring drug prices - either through subsidized discounts or some sort of insurance coverage - has eluded the Assembly and Congress many times before.

"My experience has been, over the years, that it's a lot easier to kill or alter a bill than it is to pass one," Colmers says.

"Coach"

At least Busch entered the fight with plenty of momentum. He's no patron saint of political lost causes.

Since he assumed the chairmanship seven years ago, Busch estimates, his committee has approved more than 1,000 bills, and none has ever gone on to defeat on the House floor - a remarkable record owing partly to his ability to tune in to the legislature's political rhythms, and to keep his ego in check.

When he talks about the record, he sounds like a superstitious baseball pitcher on a hot streak. "One day we're going to lose one," he says, lowering his voice as if trying not to jinx himself.

Nicknamed "Coach," he has become one of the Assembly's most popular members not by bluster or by invoking his authority, but because of an easygoing, accommodating style.

He also has a powerful friend in House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who was Busch's predecessor as the Economic Matters chairman. The two talk nearly every day, and Busch is considered by many as a possible future speaker.

The son of a Baltimore lawyer, Busch earned a nickname that derives partly from his former football and basketball coaching stints at St. Mary's High School in Annapolis and from a rugged appearance.

But it also reflects his legislative style. He is more of a conciliator than an advocate. "There are so many strident people here who are advocates who never play a role in policy because they're always out on the fringe," he says.

On health and other issues, Busch gives his 22 fellow committee members space to develop their own expertise and, in return, seems to get their loyalty when he needs it most.

Compromising manner

His quiet style is in marked contrast to many of the congressional committee chairmen in Washington who become publicly associated with causes - for example, Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who frequently makes speeches to push his pet issue of campaign finance reform.

Committee leaders in Annapolis are far less visible. They work on a smaller stage and spend more time lobbying fellow legislators to support their programs than publicly boosting their causes.

Busch often deliberately keeps his name off legislation, not because he doesn't like applause, but because he doesn't want to alienate people by seeming to forgo his role as a fair broker. "Politics is a distance run," he says.

Athletes who played for him say this approach sounds similar to what they remember of their coach.

He had particular success in football, playing running back for St. Mary's and Temple University - where he graduated as an education major in 1971 - then won 31 of 40 games as St. Mary's coach.

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