Coalition unveils health care pledge

Md. candidates' backing of plan to aid poor sought

July 10, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

A coalition of groups seeking expanded health coverage for Maryland's poor called on gubernatorial and legislative candidates yesterday to back a 36-cent cigarette tax increase and to stop the sale of the state's largest nonprofit insurer.

The three-point pledge being sent out this week by the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative also asks candidates to support having the state negotiate with drug manufacturers to secure lower prices on medicine for senior citizens and others who lack prescription coverage.

"These are good policy and smart politics," said Vincent DeMarco, the coalition's executive director. "If the people of Maryland know how the candidates stand, they will choose the candidates who support these issues."

But it's not clear how many candidates will sign on.

Neither of the two leading gubernatorial candidates was willing to endorse the entire pledge yesterday, and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said legislative candidates should not box themselves in on issues before the start of the General Assembly's session.

"I just find it irresponsible for Vinnie or anybody else to be asking potential policymakers to make these kinds of premature conclusions before they have ever been exposed to the intense research and education that goes into the legislative process," Taylor said.

The coalition - which says it has the backing of hundreds of churches, union locals and health advocacy groups - is aiming to make health care a top issue in this year's Maryland elections.

The group's ultimate goal for the 2003 legislative session is the passage of legislation to provide health coverage for the estimated 650,000 Marylanders who don't have insurance - something that could cost an estimated $1 billion.

But for now, the group is asking candidates to make a more limited commitment to increasing the tobacco tax for health care, blocking the sale of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, and negotiating for lower prescription drug prices - what DeMarco described as "building blocks" for a bigger plan.

The coalition released polls yesterday indicating that a majority of Maryland voters back all three points of the pledge.

The pledge was delivered to the two leading gubernatorial candidates yesterday and will be sent this week to everyone who has filed to run for the General Assembly, DeMarco said. He said initiative members will spread the word about candidates who sign on - and about those who don't.

A spokesman for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the expected Democratic nominee in the gubernatorial race, said the pledge is similar to previous proposals she has made regarding CareFirst and prescription drugs. But Townsend has rejected any tax increases for next year.

A spokesman for Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the leading Republican candidate, said the campaign needs time to review the pledge and will respond to the group by its Aug. 27 deadline.

Officials at CareFirst, the nonprofit company that provides health coverage to Marylanders who can't find other insurance, are seeking to convert it to a for-profit company and then sell the company to California-based WellPoint Health Networks Inc. for $1.3 billion. The proposal is being considered by Maryland's insurance commissioner.

In a statement released yesterday, CareFirst officials said they prefer to let that process take place without candidates taking positions on the issue.

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