Clergy press for health care bill

Advocates urge senators to act

General Assembly

March 14, 2007|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,Sun reporter

With the two chambers of the General Assembly at an impasse over extending medical coverage to uninsured Marylanders, members of the clergy gathered in Annapolis yesterday to pressure state senators to approve legislation that the House of Delegates is expected to pass this week.

"Those who don't see the urgency of this bill, we'll make sure they'll be serving someplace else," said the Rev. A.C.D. Vaughn, pastor of Sharon Baptist Church in Baltimore.

He made that pledge at a news conference with more than 50 representatives of the clergy who said they were compelled to speak out for congregation members who go without health care because they lack insurance.

The event began a heightened push for legislation to address the state's nearly 800,000 uninsured residents, a group that could grow by 50,000 in the next year and cost about $50 million in unpaid-for hospital care, some legislators say.

Union members, college students and health advocates also are lobbying senators, who have yet to act on a health care bill.

A House committee approved last week legislation that would take more than 100,000 people off the uninsured rolls, mostly through an expansion of Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor. House Speaker Michael E. Busch said yesterday that the full chamber is expected to approve the measure by Friday.

But Senate leaders, including President Thomas V. Mike Miller, remained steadfast yesterday in their opposition to the bill's chief funding source, a doubling of the tobacco tax to $2 for a pack of cigarettes.

Miller has said any new revenue should be considered part of an effort to balance the state's budget and close a projected $1.3 billion shortfall next year.

"The luxury of embarking on any new programs can only be after our fiscal soundness has been assured," Miller said, adding that other social programs also might require additional funding, including education.

Several Republicans also object to the tax increase, which some argue wouldn't make sense as a funding source because it declines as fewer people smoke.

Gov. Martin O'Malley is supportive of expanding access to health care but has made the same argument against using the tobacco tax.

Sen. Verna L. Jones, a Baltimore Democrat and sponsor of health care legislation, remains optimistic that a consensus bill could pass. "I still think there's room for negotiation," she said.

The House bill has been scaled back. Sponsors originally envisioned extending medical coverage to 250,000 people but dropped plans to give small businesses subsidies to provide insurance to workers.

They also eliminated a provision that would have required that higher-income residents buy insurance or pay a fee, while retaining another provision that would require insurers to allow adults up to age 25 to stay on their parents' plan.

Also this week, an SEIU health care workers union plans to distribute thousands of postcards to senators from constituents, and Families USA, an advocacy group for universal health care, will launch a $25,000 radio ad in support of the bill.

Meanwhile, students from the University of Maryland, the Johns Hopkins University and other colleges are canvassing certain districts.

Sen. C. Anthony Muse, a Democrat and minister at one of Prince George's County's largest churches, said the contacts from clergy might have the most impact on his political colleagues.

"If senators hear from the ministers in their district," he said, "it will shake them."

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

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