House panel passes health insurance bill


ANNAPOLIS -- To the applause of a roomful of lobbyists and the committee members themselves, a House committee yesterday passed a bill aimed at making health insurance more affordable as a first step toward solving the problem of Maryland's uninsured population.

The bill would allow small businesses to offer their employees a relatively inexpensive health insurance policy, one that does not include many of the 32 benefits state law currently mandates that all employers offer if they offer any insurance at all.

The bill, part of a package of health insurance reforms recommended by a gubernatorial commission, faces a tough fight on the House floor and in the Senate. Legislators and lobbyists believe virtually any opposition from business, insurance, medical or consumer groups could kill it.

The legislation would make the "basic benefits policy" available only to companies with 25 employees or fewer, and only if the firm had offered no insurance in the previous 12 months.

No person could remain with the plan for more than three years, and no insurer could offer such a policy after June 30, 1994, according to the bill that passed the committee.

The limitations and "sunset" date are intended to prevent the legislature or small businesses from viewing the basic benefits policy as a final solution to the problem of Maryland's 570,000 uninsured citizens, the bill's primary sponsor, Delegate Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, told the panel.

"As we go through this process we've got to keep in mind that this is only the first step," Mr. Taylor, who chairs the committee, said. "One of the intentions of [the sunset] is to remind ourselves that unless we do something in '92 or '93 or '94," the plan will expire.

Passing the House Economic Matters Committee was not surprising, considering every member of the committee co-sponsored the bill.

What was unusual, observers agreed, was the extraordinary degree of cooperation Mr. Taylor managed to extract from the dozens of lobbyists with conflicting interests.

"Cas [Mr. Taylor] has done a tremendous job of bringing us all together . . . when any other legislator may not have even tried," said PaulTiburzi, a lobbyist for the Health Insurance Association of America, a trade group.

Mr. Tiburzi said, however, that his clients cannot promise they will be willing to spend the money to develop and market an insurance policy that meets the bill's guidelines.

Because of some of the dozen or so amendments added to the bill during the last month of negotiations, the basic benefits policy would be too expensive to attract enough subscribers for the insurers to consider it worthwhile, Mr. Tiburzi and his counterpart with a group of Maryland insurers told Mr. Taylor.

About eight other states have basic benefits plans, but commercial insurance companies have generally stayed out of that market.

That would leave only the two Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies serving Maryland as possible sellers of the policy. The two companies have said that they will market such a policy and that it will cost substantially less than the average policies they currently sell.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland Inc. has estimated that such a policy would cost less than $100 a month for an individual, depending on some of the options available. It charges an average of about $160 a month to individuals covered under group plans.

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