Kidney patients oppose bill to tap their assets


ANNAPOLIS -- He lost both kidneys to cancer and then had to quit his bus driving job two years ago because he was too sick to work.

These days, Otis Phillips spends 3 1/2 hours a day, three days a week, tethered to a kidney dialysis machine -- the blood-cleansing device that keeps him alive while he endures the long wait for a transplant.

Yesterday, Mr. Phillips was among the 16 patients, doctors and social workers who offered polite but emotional testimony against the state health department's bill that aims to tap the income and assets of kidney patients before making them eligible for benefits covering medications and other costs associated with their treatment.

"I'm the sole provider in my household -- why make the whole household suffer?" Mr. Phillips, 52, told members of the House Environmental Matters Committee. The Montgomery County man explained that he would have little to leave his family if he were forced to exhaust a good part of his savings before qualifying for benefits under Maryland's Kidney Disease Program.

Acting Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini said his bill would bring fiscal control to a program whose costs could soar from this year's $5.8 million to more than $7 million next

year without major revisions.

He said he could trim $2 million from next year's projections if the legislature adopts his bill, which imposes "fair share" fees on the 4,200 patients who benefit.

Mr. Sabatini insisted his bill would not, as some opponents charged, drive patients into poverty because it would protect a block of income -- for instance, the first $9,400 for a single person -- from the 5 percent tax on earnings.

Opponents offered two companion bills -- bills that impose fees but protect larger amounts of income and savings and allow patients to deduct the costs of other medical insurance from the income that's taxed.

They reserved their strongest language for Mr. Sabatini's proposal to take the authority for regulating the program away from the autonomous Kidney Disease Commission -- a group of doctors, patients, social workers and insurance company representatives -- and put it in the hands of his health department.

The kidney program is the only benefits program in state government that is not regulated by the department that disburses the funds, he pointed out.

While Mr. Sabatini hinted he might compromise on fees, he said he would recommend that Gov. William Donald Schaefer not fund any kidney program that does not give the department regulatory authority.

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