The Baltimore City Council gave preliminary approval last night to a bill that would require health maintenance organizations contracting with the city to have minority doctors and dentists as participants.
The bill, which still faces a final vote, does not specify numbers of minority health care providers that would be required, but an HMO that bids on a city contract would have to demonstrate to a city panel that it has a diverse group of doctors or dentists.
"Anyone who bids on a contract with the city to provide health care services will have to prequalify," said Lawrence A. Bell III, the bill's sponsor.
As a part of the prequalification process, HMOs would be rated on the ethnic diversity of their health care providers, as well as the price and variety of services they offered.
Minority physicians and dentists, particularly African-Americans, complained that HMOs routinely discriminate against them by rejecting them or dropping them from their networks, often without giving a reason. One possible reason, some doctors said, was that their patients tend not to practice preventive health care and require more expensive treatment when they become ill.
African-American physicians have had a difficult time "serving their neighbors and serving in the neighborhoods in which they grew up," said Councilman Martin O'Malley, speaking last night in favor of the bill's passage.
"What a lot of these African-American doctors said was they were getting totally frozen out," Mr. O'Malley said after the hearing. "People who are city employees who would like to go to a doctor who looks like them have been unable to in their neighborhood."
The council also gave preliminary approval to a bill that would give Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. the right to compete with Trigen-Baltimore Energy Corp. to provide steam and hot water heat to buildings in downtown Baltimore. Until now, Trigen has had the market to itself and BGE asked for the legislation in order to compete for Trigen's larger customers. A bill that will prohibit the sale of nonalcoholic beverages in bottles that simulate alcoholic beverage containers received final passage, as did a bill that will increase the salaries of council members and of the mayor.