2 bills signed to benefit hearing-impaired kids

Measures among 200 made law by governor

May 16, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Rachel Dubin was born deaf. But her condition wasn't detected until she was 3, and most insurers weren't covering hearing aids for kids then.

Yesterday, with Dubin, 24, standing over his shoulder, Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed into law two bills that could change the lives of people for whom the early lack of hearing aids can mean lost speech and language skills later on.

One bill requires health insurers, including HMOs, to cover hearing aids for children as prescribed by an audiologist. The other establishes a loan program making the aids available even to those without insurance.

The measures, which together give Maryland one of the nation's most generous benefit packages for hearing-impaired children, were among more than 200 bills signed by the governor at a State House ceremony.

Also signed were bills to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, to grant collective-bargaining rights to university workers, to prevent race-based traffic stops and to target more state contracts to minority businesses.

Glendening, a Democrat whose second and final term expires in January 2003, said the measures "may be the most meaningful of this administration. They go to the very heart of the values that are so important to us -- the values of fairness, of justice and inclusion."

The hearing-aid bills follow a measure passed in 1999 requiring every hospital in Maryland to screen newborns for signs of hearing problems.

"Now that we have early identification -- and now with these bills -- children will have the opportunity to develop language and speech on par with their peers," said Ben Dubin, a Baltimore County accountant and Rachel Dubin's father.

Rachel Dubin was not screened until after her third birthday. She lip reads, has an aptitude for language and is now a graduate student in political science. Still, her family says her speech quality would have been better had she gotten a hearing device as a newborn.

About 400 children a year are born in the state with hearing problems. Since the insurance measure covers youths up to age 18, that means about 7,200 youths could be affected, the elder Dubin said.

The bill-signing ceremony was largely a festive affair, as hundreds of legislative sponsors and advocates lined up to pose for pictures with the pen-wielding governor as he transformed their bills into law.

But, although the General Assembly session ended more than five weeks ago, lobbying continues. Some of the maneuvering is because Glendening has yet to announce how he will settle a turf battle between doctors and nurses.

"We're still reviewing it -- it's a very complex bill," the governor said when asked whether he would sign a bill allowing patients in HMOs the option of selecting nurse practitioners as a primary care provider. Maryland's health maintenance organizations allow only doctors to assume that role.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and a prime sponsor of the bill, declined yesterday to pose for the customary photograph as the governor signed legislation increasing nurse scholarship awards. Hollinger, a nurse, said it was her way of letting Glendening know of her concern about the fate of the other bill.

Also staging a quiet protest yesterday was TakeBack Maryland.org, a Severna Park-based group. A representative showed up at the bill-signing and said the organization is collecting signatures -- it would need more than 40,000 -- to repeal the gay rights bill in a voter referendum. The organization's news release said the bill "violates the rights of Maryland citizens to live by their moral and religious beliefs."

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