County widens health care net

Letters, search of records planned to identify families qualifying for aid

October 12, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN REPORTER

Howard County Health Department statistician Jonathan Margolick was looking for ways to identify county residents who lack health insurance when he had an idea.

In California, he found, the state fills out tax forms for about 1 million residents with uncomplicated income profiles. The state mails the forms to the taxpayers, who need only to sign and return them.

"If they have that information, wouldn't Maryland?" he recalled thinking. If Maryland officials were willing to cooperate, perhaps state income-tax returns could be used to find uninsured Howard residents who would benefit from existing programs or from the new county health-care access plan due to be revealed next week.

State Comptroller Peter Franchot quickly agreed to help.

On Wednesday, Margolick, 23, watched from behind the television cameras and reporters standing in the lobby of the state office complex in Baltimore as his boss, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the county health officer, joined Franchot and County Executive Ken Ulman to explain how the letters project would work. Beilenson gave Margolick credit for the idea.

"Allowing 800,000 Marylanders to go without health care puts all of us in a perilous financial situation," Franchot said at the news conference. To help reduce that number in Howard County, his office will electronically search state records for Howard families who might qualify for help and then will send them a letter offering assistance.

The mailing may be a "small initiative," Franchot said, but it could be a big step in finding innovative ways to attack a major problem. He said he would be happy to replicate the effort for any other county government interested in trying it.

"We would love to work with any other jurisdiction," he said.

The letter is being drafted now and, after review by the state attorney general's office, will be sent after Ulman's announcement next week. Franchot said. The plan passed legal muster and preserves taxpayers' confidentiality he said, since the comptroller's office, not the county, is searching tax records and sending the letters. The county will pay the cost of the mailing.

The initial idea is to find families with incomes under 300 percent of the federal poverty level, which would qualify their children for immediate help from the State Children Health Insurance Program.

It also will identify adults who could benefit from the county's more comprehensive health access plan, to be announced by Ulman on Tuesday at Howard Community College.

"If you set a goal of getting access to health care for those in Howard County who are not insured, the first thing you have to do is identify who this population is to find who the folks are who are uninsured," Ulman said.

Between 3,000 and 5,000 children might be in that category, said Beilenson.

Last week, Ulman announced that county schools would send letters and e-mails home to all 48,500 students to identify more eligible children.

"We want to identify adults who are under 300 percent of poverty level because we want to ... get them information on our new access," Ulman said. "That's why this is important. It's important for us not to just pay lip service to identifying the population."

Tuesday, county officials launched a health-care access program announced two weeks ago. Using a computerized random drawing, they chose 175 families to participate in a low-cost health insurance plan offered by Kaiser Permanente, said Lisa M. deHernandez, a Health Department spokeswoman.

She said more than 200 families had applied for the insurance, offered at rates that will remain low for up to two years. Those chosen will get a letter inviting them to meet with Health Department workers to go over details. The meetings will be scheduled at county libraries during evening hours to avoid interfering with the applicants' jobs.

Beilenson said that when uninsured people go to hospital emergency rooms for treatment, some of the cost is passed along to insured families through higher premiums.

Each insured family pays an average of $3 a day more to cover the extra costs to hospitals, he said. That's $1,095 a year, and costs are rising.

Enrolling more uninsured families in existing programs will lower costs for everyone, Ulman said.

Margolick, a Baltimore native who worked in Beilenson's unsuccessful congressional campaign last year, has been employed by the county Health Department since spring.

"The thing that really feels nice is working in a place and with people who listen to ideas like that," he said after the news conference. "The open lines of communication are what made this possible."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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