Capital Notebook

CAPITAL NOTEBOOK

April 05, 2007

Bill would restrict scholarship program

Prohibiting state legislators from giving scholarships to their relatives or to the families of their colleagues would help restore public trust in the General Assembly, an Anne Arundel County senator told a House of Delegates committee yesterday.

Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, a Republican who sponsored a bill restricting the $11-million-a-year legislative scholarship program, said lawmakers should be held to the same ethical standards when doling out scholarships that they are when hiring staff.

Lawmakers have faced questions over the years about the scholarship program, which critics say amounts to a way to buy votes. Simonaire's bill would leave the scholarship program intact but would prohibit legislators from knowingly giving the money to their relatives or to the relatives of their colleagues, which some senators and delegates have done in the past.

"A simple action could take away a lot of negative attention this institution is getting," Simonaire testified in a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee.

The House has voted in the past to abolish the practice of legislators giving out scholarships. Delegates are allotted less money in the program than are state senators. None of the Ways and Means members expressed opposition to the bill.

Del. Ann Marie Doory, a Baltimore Democrat who is the Ways and Means vice chairwoman, said she turns her scholarship money over to the Maryland Higher Education Commission to avoid any potential conflicts.

"I personally think the professionals should be giving away the money based on need," she said.

Andrew A. Green

State OKs new prescription plan

The Board of Public Works approved a $1.1 billion prescription drug benefits contract yesterday for state employees and retirees after reassurances that few, if any, patients would be hit with higher co-payment costs under the new plan.

Catalyst RX Inc., a Rockville firm, won the contract, one of the state government's largest, to provide benefits for more than 200,000 current and former employees. Comptroller Peter Franchot had delayed approval of the contract over concerns about a state estimate that 48,000 people would wind up paying higher co-pays if the Catalyst plan went into effect.

The state Department of Budget and Management produced a new estimate last week suggesting the true figure would be no more than 20,000, but the company, which has handled similar transitions in other states, estimated it could be 2,000 or fewer.

Franchot asked Catalyst Chief Executive Officer David Blair, who attended the board meeting: "Is there some way you as CEO could articulate some assurance to us."

Blair said his company would work aggressively with state workers and retirees to find medically appropriate, lower-cost drugs to make sure workers are paying no more - and in many cases, less - than they are now.

"Absolutely," Blair said. "We can guarantee zero member disruption."

Ultimately, officials said they think the new plan will save the state money because of Catalyst's efforts to switch patients from high-cost name-brand drugs to generic equivalents. Catalyst has also agreed to a transparent business model in which it shares information with the state about discounts it is able to negotiate with drug companies.

Sue Esty, the interim executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92, said it was heartening to hear Blair's commitment to making sure employees aren't forced to pay more for their medications.

"It looks in the long run like a good thing for state employees because the level of transparency is so high," Esty said.

The contract has been delayed for months over a dispute between Catalyst and the incumbent company, Caremark PCS, an Arizona firm. Caremark bid $13 million less for the contract but got a lower technical ranking. Caremark filed four bid protests, each of which was denied.

"Caremark's bid was actually priced significantly lower," said Susan Bro, a company spokeswoman, in an e-mail. "Caremark rarely files bid protests or appeals. In this case, however, we believed the benefits we offered with respect to price, disruption to employees/retirees and our historically strong performance, deserved a second look."

Andrew A. Green

Health bill may die in Senate

In a last-ditch effort to revive a sweeping health care proposal, the NAACP and Maryland health care advocates pleaded yesterday for the Senate to pass a bill that would greatly expand coverage through a cigarette tax increase.

"We can't wait any longer," said Myisha Patterson, the national health coordinator for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, at a news conference on Wednesday. "To wait till the next legislative session will put the lives of 100,000 Marylanders at risk."

But the advocates may be lobbying in vain. Although the bill had the strong backing of House Speaker Michael E. Busch, and sailed through the House by a vote of 102 to 37, it was greeted with a lack of enthusiasm when it reached the Senate last week.

"They [residents] don't want high taxes," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. "They want good government. Eventually we have to move forward on the heath care plan, but not right now. We have to be fiscally responsible."

Capital News Service

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