Budget cuts, differing priorities could hurt

POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

September 25, 2005|By LARRY CARSON

"The consequences of state budget cuts and differing political priorities could have potentially dangerous consequences in Howard County, health officer Penny Borenstein told local state legislators last week.

The Ehrlich administration decision to not extend Medicaid coverage to newly pregnant, legal immigrants after July 1 is likely to swamp the Howard County Health Department's clinic, Borenstein told the group. The administration in July cut the coverage for already pregnant immigrant women to save $1.5 million, but the governor reversed that action July 21 after the state surplus swelled to $1 billion. An additional $5.5 million cut from health care benefits for immigrant children stands, however.

But Borenstein said women who become pregnant after July 1 will not receive neonatal benefits from the state, and the number of women seeking prenatal care has nearly doubled in the past five years. A 32 percent increase is expected this fiscal year.

Nearly all of these women do not speak English, which is costing $122,000 this year for language-translation services. Without help, the Health Department must cut services, she said later.

"We are the third-hardest hit jurisdiction," behind Montgomery and Prince George's County, she said, and Howard's clinic already is overburdened. One midwife must handle 47 patients on each of the two days a week the clinic is open. Borenstein, a physician, said she expects more than 60 more women denied state neonatal coverage to join the 260 patients being seen. She said that Howard County health officials have seen a 140 percent increase in non-English-speaking patients, further complicating treatment.

"We're approaching the point of dangerous care," Borenstein said at the Association of Community Services breakfast Wednesday morning at the Meeting House in Oakland Mills. The group presented a list of issues and suggested actions - from restoring state bus route cuts to expanding moderate-income housing opportunities it wants legislators to support.

Cutting money for prenatal care is counterproductive, Borenstein argued, noting that studies show that each $1 spent for prenatal care saves $3.34 in later treatment costs without it.

"The bottom line is, we will end up with babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit," she said.

"Penny is absolutely right - prenatal care is absolutely essential," said western Howard Republican Del. Gail H. Bates. "The uninsured and the underinsured are a real problem. I don't know what the answer is."

She criticized the Democrat-dominated General Assembly for eliminating the state's Office of Children, Youth and Families. However, State Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat, said, "Some things should be ended because they're just not effective."

Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Democrat running for Congress, said he has a long-term answer to all the pleas for more state money - replace Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in next year's election. He criticized Ehrlich for cutting Medicaid by $1.5 million while the state is enjoying a surplus, though about 40 percent of that money is already spent.

"I hate to be doom and gloom, but we're one year away from the opportunity to have a new administration," he told the crowd of about 75 people.

Most of the five delegates and two state senators who attended the breakfast said the governor is the only state official with power to put money into the budget. The General Assembly can only make reductions.

"There isn't anything in here I wouldn't like to see," Republican state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader said about the ACS agenda. "I have a magic wand in my office, and I bring it out when things get tense. We are trying our best," she said. Her top local priority next session is to push a county request for $500,000 in state bond funding to help enlarge the county's Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center and homeless shelter. County Executive James N. Robey has promised $1.5 million in county funds for that project.

Smoking-bill delay

Those hoping to see smoking made illegal at all Howard County bars and restaurants will have to wait at least until November to see legislation.

Robey is not submitting the bill to the County Council next month, he said, though he has not abandoned the idea. He said he is working to build support before introducing legislation.

Postponement

County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon postponed his planned Sept. 20 formal announcement of his candidacy for county executive because of scheduling problems, he said, but he is still campaigning.

He had a private political fundraiser Thursday night at which Lt. Gov. Steele was the featured guest, but Merdon refused to admit a reporter.

"It's not a public event," he said, adding that at $150 a ticket, he hoped to raise $20,000 for his campaign.

Fellow Republican Bates had a different idea for a fundraiser. She calls her $100-a-person event today at Oakdale, the old Warfield mansion, "A Celebration of Women," featuring Barbara J. Windsor, president of Hahn Transportation, the Maryland Motor Truck Association's person of the year and an abortive candidate for Maryland lieutenant governor in 1998, running with former Howard County executive Charles I. Ecker.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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