Insuring the uninsured

Our view : Health of Maryland's poor gets a needed boost this week

June 29, 2008

Joanne Hohman is slowly losing the use of her knees but can't afford a specialist to diagnose exactly what's wrong. Her husband, Richard, recently suffered chest pains and may have sleep apnea but can't pay for the test to confirm it.

Living on less than $20,000 a year, the middle-aged Catonsville couple has been forced to neglect a variety of ailments, from high blood pressure to asthma. They are two of the estimated 800,000 Maryland residents who lack health insurance of any kind.

But their health is due to change for the better after Tuesday.

That's when Maryland's landmark expansion of Medicaid goes into effect. Eventually, more than 100,000 uninsured people will qualify for some type of health care under the legislation passed by the General Assembly last year.

The Hohmans' 13-year-old son already receives help from the federally supported medical assistance program, but now his parents will be able to enroll, too. Maryland's Medicaid program has long been geared toward helping children in poverty, but this has also been one of the stingiest states in the nation when it comes to providing care for their parents.

Even with the change, it's still far from a bonanza. Eligibility standards for poor adults will now rank somewhere around 21st in the nation, health care advocates say, but it's a distinct improvement from Maryland's former position in the bottom five. The new law also provides premium subsidies and other benefits to small employers who haven't been able to provide health insurance to their workers.

Obviously, this is no cure-all for the many woes of the health care system. Medicaid has become a huge expense, and other avenues, such as requiring private health insurance for those who can afford it, will also have to be pursued.

But for the working poor like the Hohmans, this is a godsend. And when critics of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the legislature grouse about expanding government, they ought to be reminded of the reasonable health care benefits our most vulnerable families are getting in return.

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