Advocates seek more money for Healthy Howard

Aggressive County Council testimony seeks to blunt main critic, Councilman Greg Fox

April 29, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Advocates for Howard County's innovative health access plan are mounting an aggressive campaign to win County Council approval for another $500,000 in scarce public dollars next fiscal year to head off criticism from Republican Councilman Greg Fox.

Fox has argued that the experimental program for uninsured people with limited income has not met stated enrollment or finance goals and the county should reduce or eliminate public funding for it. Last year he lost his bid to cut funding on a 4-1 council vote.

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the county health officer, said he offered to meet individually with each of the five County Council members before their public budget review of County Executive Ken Ulman's $1.4 billion request begins, and has already talked to the three council Democrats most supportive of the program.

At the council's hearing on the general county budget Monday night at school board headquarters, a third of the 30 speakers were officials, patients or workers in the unusual health program, and they all argued that the money is needed.

Others asked the council to preserve the $5.9 million included for nonprofits, arguing that demand is ballooning for food and money to prevent hunger, eviction, homelessness and utility shut-offs caused by the recession. Others urged continued funding for the arts, tourism and staffing for the new Robinson Nature Center when it opens this year.

Citizens interested in public schools, libraries and Howard Community College were scheduled to speak at a separate public hearing Saturday, May 1. The council plans to start work sessions on the budget Tuesday, May 4, and vote on final budget bills May 19. The new spending plan takes effect July 1.

"We have cut our operating budget to the bone," budget director Raymond S. Wacks told the council, saying that spending is lower for everything but education and the election board, due to this year's two elections. County employees are set to get no cost-of-living raises, and face another four-day furlough, though some are bitter that, for the second year, unionized teachers, police and firefighters aren't being furloughed. Elected officials and appointed department heads have agreed to return five days' pay, and the school system returned $3.9 million to the county.

Meanwhile, agencies of last resort, such as the Community Action Council, say they are facing higher demand. The CAC, a nonprofit anti-poverty agency, is proposed to get $665,000 from the county, and it is seeing 35 percent to 40 percent more requests for help, said director Bita Dayhoff.

Mimi O'Donnell, Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center board chairwoman, said requests for services increased from 27,000 in fiscal 2009 to a projected 37,000 this year, a 37 percent increase. Grassroots is proposed to get $1.285 million from the county for the fiscal year starting July 1, a $13,652 increase. The agency's overall budget is $2.45 million.

Distribution of surplus food in Howard almost doubled in fiscal 2009 to 388,000 pounds, and the food bank is seeing more middle-class families who lost jobs asking for help, said Nancy Smith, the Maryland Food Bank's government relations officer.

Liddy Garcia-Bunuel, executive director of Healthy Howard, led the program's witnesses, telling council members that the program has screened 5,638 people since starting in October 2008. As of Friday, 786 people were getting medical care from Healthy Howard, which charges from $85 to $115 a month for comprehensive care within the county, though the program is not insurance.

Beilenson, who is also board chairman of the independent nonprofit, later testified that 3,486 of those screened were found eligible and enrolled in existing health insurance programs, while 172 enrolled in Healthy Howard have found jobs or moved on to insurance on their own, leaving 614 people in the program.

With new federal mandates requiring health insurance by July 1, 2014, Healthy Howard will "cease to exist. We are basically a bridge program," he said. Still, he argued that it is important for the county to keep paying for the program for four more years.

"We will not turn our back on our neighbors in Howard County." With Healthy Howard "we beat the country to the punch," he said.

Beilenson clearly tried to beat Fox to the punch, presenting Healthy Howard patients who told council members their stories, sometimes in emotional terms, and showing photos of patients' faces to humanize his budget request.

Pamela Spong of Ellicott City choked with emotion throughout her testimony, telling council members her husband had put off needed medical testing for six years because the family did not have insurance. But she said the program's benefit to her family goes beyond that, to the encouragement and help she got to improve her own health through better living practices.

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