Bills expanding health care likely to pass Assembly

Drug discount measure could affect 30,000-40,000

April 05, 2005|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

With a week remaining in this year's legislative session, lawmakers seem likely to pass several bills expanding access to health care.

"It's a significant year for health care expansion," said Vincent DeMarco, president of Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, a group supporting universal medical coverage.

Both houses have approved - unanimously - legislation letting low- and moderate-income uninsured people take advantage of the state's purchasing power in buying prescriptions, which promises discounts of up to 40 percent.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Tuesday's business section stated that the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees represents about 3,000 health care workers who contract with the state to care for the elderly and disabled in their homes. In fact, the workers are not members of any union, but AFSCME and the Service Employees International Union lobby on their behalf.
The Sun regrets the errors.

About 30,000 to 40,000 Marylanders would be eligible for the discounts, DeMarco estimated.

Each house has passed a different version of a bill to aid nonprofit clinics that treat the uninsured. But key committee chairmen say they're optimistic the two houses can resolve their differences on bills to give money to run the clinics and to expand the facilities.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. agrees with the lawmakers' general approach on both the clinics and prescription-discount bills, said Shareese N. DeLeaver, his spokeswoman.

More contentious is a bill to require large employers to spend at least 8 percent of payroll on health benefits, or pay the difference in taxes to the state. Both supporters and opponents say the tax would likely hit only one company - Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

The bill has cleared the House of Delegates, and Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Southern Maryland Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, predicted yesterday that it would pass the Senate in the next few days, with a vote largely along party lines.

It then faces a possible veto from the Republican governor.

Although Ehrlich hasn't explicitly tipped his hand, DeLeaver said he agrees with testimony by his Department of Business and Economic Development that the bill would damage Maryland's ability to attract business to the state.

"This is the yellow brick road to payroll taxes for all businesses" to support government health programs, said Robert O. C. Worcester, president of Maryland Business for Responsive Government.

If the bill passes, he said yesterday, lawmakers in the future could raise the amount of spending required and expand the size of companies covered (10,000 employees in the current bill). "It gives a very detrimental signal with regard to what employers can expect in Maryland."

During floor debate in the Senate on Friday, Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, said, "Labor couldn't accomplish what it wanted to accomplish at the negotiating table, so they came to the General Assembly."

"This is not a union bill," Middleton responded Friday.

In an interview yesterday, Middleton said federal cuts and tight state budgets made it difficult for governments to expand health coverage, so he supported the bill as "a statement of policy" that businesses need to accept responsibility for health insurance for their workers.

During legislative hearings, unions and other supporters of the bill said Wal-Mart wasn't offering adequate health benefits. Wal-Mart said it offered good benefits for the retail industry, but its spending was low because many of its employees have other coverage.

While the legislation requiring large employers to buy insurance appears to be heading to the governor's desk, a bill aimed at requiring higher-income individuals to buy insurance died in a House committee.

The bill would have assessed a tax penalty against those who didn't buy health insurance but whose annual income exceeded $55,900 for an individual, or $83,850 for a family. That's estimated to cover 22 percent of the 750,000 without medical insurance in Maryland.

John Adams Hurson, who chairs the House Health and Government Affairs Committee, where the bill died, said Democrats were concerned about the accuracy of the estimates of the number of people involved.

"Some day, this is going to happen," said the Montgomery County Democrat. "There's no doubt about the value of the concept. It's the mechanics."

Republican lawmakers were interested in including a tax credit for those who purchase insurance as individuals, but Democrats - who are in the majority in the legislature - opposed the idea.

In other bills involving health coverage, Hurson's committee approved, and the House gave preliminary approval to, a bill to allow Maryland Health Insurance Plan to offer more types of insurance policies.

The insurance plan covers individuals who can't buy insurance because they're in poor health or because they have lost coverage because of their employer shutting down.

The House blocked, however, an effort by the insurance plan to allow its budget to be cut. The plan now collects about $55 million a year from an assessment on hospital bills, but spent only about $25 million last year as enrollment fell below projections.

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