'Play-or-pay' health plan sparks lukewarm debate


ANNAPOLIS -- With little passion, supporters and opponents of a plan to create an employer "play-or-pay" health care system in Maryland ran through their arguments yesterday before a House committee.

The plan is the second of three the House Economic Matters Committee is weighing this year to address the high cost of health care and the large number of uninsured people in Maryland.

But the lack of zeal the combatants displayed for their task yesterday was partly a reflection of their pessimism about the bill's chances for survival this year.

Observers are expressing little hope that any major reform will pass by the end of the session, even as they bemoan the rising costs and inefficiencies of the current system.

The play-or-pay option, similar to the Democrats' bill in Congress, would require virtually all employers to buy at least a minimum health insurance plan for their employees.

Those that didn't would be taxed for each uninsured employee at 125 percent of the value of a model insurance package -- estimated at about $60 a month for an individual -- to be created under the bill. The tax revenue would help cover the uninsured in Maryland.

Eugene Feinblatt, chairman of the gubernatorial commission on health care issues that recommended play-or-pay, acknowledged that the bill "is not a cure-all for the problems of the uninsured."

But with about a quarter of a million full-time workers in the state lacking insurance, he said, the bill is "an attempt to build on the present system incrementally, as a holding game until universal coverage was effected in Maryland or nationally."

Critics said the plan won't lower health care costs and could overburden small businesses.

Although 18 people signed up to testify against the bill -- compared with just two in favor -- only about half showed up.

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