State Comptroller Peter Franchot has agreed to cull state income tax records to identify Howard County families who might qualify for health care assistance and then send them letters offering help, county officials said yesterday.
"Who knows better than the state comptroller who is making less than 300 percent of [the federal] poverty [level]?" asked Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the county health officer, referring to the income cutoff to qualify for federally funded health care programs for children.
The letter campaign was to be announced today at Franchot's Baltimore office on West Preston Street as the latest component of what Howard County officials say will be a comprehensive plan to offer health care access to all uninsured residents. Details of the plan are to be revealed Tuesday.
"Part of leading up to [Tuesday] is seeking out information to identify" those who need help, County Executive Ken Ulman said yesterday. "It's another way to identify, most importantly, children."
A spokesman for Franchot said the comptroller is happy to help. "Peter Franchot is a strong supporter of advancing health care coverage across the state," said Joe Shapiro, his spokesman. "He would be happy to help any other local jurisdiction any way he can."
Confidentiality laws protecting taxpayers won't be violated because the comptroller's office - not the county - will review the income tax returns and do the mailing, Beilenson said.
County officials are trying to find ways to identify and reduce the number of uninsured county residents - estimated at between 18,000 and 27,000 people - before announcing details of their plan. Ulman has said he wants to make Howard - which boasts Maryland's highest median annual household income at $94,260 - a national model in providing access to affordable health care.
The goal is to do away with a system that forces uninsured people to go to crowded, expensive hospital emergency rooms for care.
"It's kind of elegant in its simplicity," Beilenson said.
Children are eligible for the State Children's Health Insurance Program - state-administered federal health insurance - if their families earn up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, meaning $41,070 for a family of two, and up to $103,710 for a family of eight. Officials estimate that up to 5,500 eligible county children are uninsured.
Beilenson and Ulman announced last week that Howard will try to enroll more eligible uninsured children by sending letters and e-mails in five languages home to the families of all 48,500 county public school students.
Earlier, they announced a small, temporary program offered by Kaiser Permanente HMO to offer two years of low-cost insurance to up to 175 limited-income families, using a lottery to choose participants.
The county will pay the cost of the state tax mailing, which will be signed by Franchot, Ulman and Beilenson.
"We cannot send it. [Franchot] needs to do it. The letter is not coming from the Health Department. It is coming from the comptroller," Beilenson said. Howard residents who receive the letter will be urged to call the county Health Department on a designated phone number that they plan to have operating in a week or two.
People not eligible for coverage under existing programs will be eligible under the county's comprehensive plan, Beilenson said.
"This is a focused way of getting to the adults most likely to be uninsured and to kids who by definition will be eligible," Beilenson said. "The only cost will be mailing the letters." He said he had no estimate of how much that would be.
By next year's April filing deadline, Beilenson said, he hopes that Franchot's office can notify by automatic return e-mail families who submit state income tax forms by computer and who fit income ranges for insurance availability.