Healthy Howard survives as council adopts budget

No pay raises, more furloughs

May 19, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Howard County's innovative health care access program survived two attempts to sharply cut its funding as the County Council approved a $1.4 billion budget Wednesday from County Executive Ken Ulman virtually intact.

The council's lone Republican, Greg Fox, was the sole opponent of the main budget bill, and his three suggested cuts were all rejected by the Democrats on the five-member body. The votes approved a spending plan that leaves tax rates untouched, but gives county workers no cost-of-living raises and a four-day unpaid furlough between Christmas and New Year's, just as last year. Department heads and elected officials will give back five days of pay. School employees will get $10 million worth of longevity pay raises but will pay slightly more for health insurance.

"There were fewer issues because there is less money to spend," said council Chairwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who joined Fox this year in trying to cut up to $300,000 of the $500,000 Ulman requested for the experimental Healthy Howard health care access program for limited-income, uninsured residents.

"We're furloughing our employees for one day to give 600 people health care coaches," Fox said at one point. The program, which is not insurance, will end in 2014 when federal law requires that every citizen buy insurance.

Fox, who has tried to cut the program in past years, and Watson argued that the program could do without health coaches who work with patients to develop healthier life habits. Fox argued that with 621 members instead of the 2,200 in early predictions, the program could get by with less public funding. But program officials said such a cut would kill the entire program, and defenders noted that roughly 4,000 county residents have obtained health insurance or coverage via the program.

"This amendment is tantamount to tanking the project, so my vote is no," said council member Jen Terrasa, a southeastern county Democrat. Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, said she believed "health care is a right, not a choice."

Fox again failed in bids to cut funds for Ulman's police bodyguard/driver, and to cut $4.5 million in courthouse renovations opposed by the Republican court clerk and register of wills.

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