Action on health care needed now, Md. task force says

Leaders hold 1st meeting on compliance with new U.S. law

May 06, 2010|By Kelly Brewington, The Baltimore Sun

While major health care reform measures don't go into effect until 2014, Maryland needs to act now to carry out key parts of the sweeping federal legislation, leaders of a governor-appointed task force charged with overseeing reform in the state said Thursday.

Some provisions, such as how the state will administer high-risk pools, which offer insurance for people with pre-existing conditions who can't get coverage, kick in later this year and require immediate attention. Others are up to state leaders. For instance, Maryland may decide if it wants to expand Medicaid coverage to more low-income people than it does now in advance of a 2014 deadline.

Those are among the considerations the 12-member Health Care Reform Coordinating Council began discussing in its first meeting Thursday in Annapolis — an initial attempt at tackling the complex, 2,000-page legislation signed into law in March.

The group made no decisions Thursday, but rolled out a timeline, which includes submitting a report to the governor by July 15, identifying the most critical state needs. By Jan. 1, the council will give the governor a more comprehensive plan. The council plans to meet with doctors, academics and interest groups to discuss how reforms should play out in Maryland.

State health care experts spent much of the three-hour meeting giving task force members a broad analysis of the effect reform will have on Maryland's Medicaid program, insurance market, small businesses and the state's high-risk pool.

Three key components of reform don't go into effect for four years: individual mandates for insurance coverage, Medicaid expansion and the creation of health care exchanges where people can shop for coverage with subsidies. But eligibility requirements and working out how to set up these systems will take a lot of work, and decisions about them should be made soon, said John Folkemer, deputy secretary of health care financing at the state health department.

In some cases, the state is awaiting regulations from the federal government to fine-tune details of reform. Federal legislation includes the creation of high-risk pools, and $5 billion nationwide to help fund it.

Maryland has had such a pool for years and plans to administer the federal program in the state. How state rules will mesh with federal regulations is still being sorted out, said Richard Popper, executive director of the pool, known as the Maryland Health Insurance Plan.

What's clear, however, is that Marylanders will benefit, he said. The new program will offer more affordable premiums, expand coverage beyond the estimated 18,000 people covered by the plan today, and end the 6-month waiting period that Maryland currently has in its rules, Popper said.

Task force members expressed concern about how to keep the public informed about the complexities of reform. The group said it will devise an education and outreach plan, place a draft of their report on healthreform.maryland.gov and take public comment.

"We need to continually educate the public on what we are doing as a council, but we also need to make sure we have in place an ongoing plan and program for educating the public on health options that will be available to them," said Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who chairs the committee with Maryland Health Secretary John M. Colmers. "People want to know, 'How do I know whether I'm Medicaid eligible or eligible for subsidies?' "

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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