Republicans call health care plans ill-timed

The Baltimore Sun

Republican state legislators said yesterday that Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to expand health care programs is ill-timed and merely a political carrot to draw votes for a deficit-reduction plan that raises a number of taxes.

O'Malley called the Maryland General Assembly into a special session this week to plug a projected $1.7 billion gap for the fiscal year that begins in July, and legislative committees have begun to delve into various aspects of his plan.

A joint Senate-House hearing addressed the governor's health care proposal, which could eventually expand government-funded programs so that more than 100,000 residents can obtain insurance.

"I believe it has more to do with politics than it does policy," said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican and vocal opponent of higher taxes who said the money earmarked for health care could be used to reduce the deficit. "In the end, all roads lead to higher taxes."

The governor's overall budget plan includes a higher sales tax, corporate income tax and a doubling of the tobacco tax to $2 for a pack of cigarettes. He also is seeking a voter referendum to legalize slot machines in the state, which could bring in hundreds of millions of additional dollars.

At the same time, the governor wants to increase spending in certain areas such as health care. His proposal would cost more than $600 million by 2012, according to a recent fiscal analysis from the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services. More than half of that would come from federal matching dollars.

The governor's aides testified at the hearing that action is needed to mitigate the rising cost of health care and its impact on poor residents and the economy. They also said O'Malley is mindful of support for raising the tobacco tax and a health care expansion in the House of Delegates, which passed a health bill in the last legislative session only to watch it die in the Senate.

Joseph C. Bryce, O'Malley's legislative director, said that part of the health proposal would not be implemented if the funding doesn't materialize. He said the governor wanted to implement what he envisions as a first step toward even broader health care coverage.

"We did not want to begin things that we could not follow through on," Bryce said. "The governor chose to make a down payment on this investment."

Nearly 800,000 residents lack medical coverage in Maryland. O'Malley's proposal would expand subsidies to small businesses and raise the eligibility for parents to those earning less than 116 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $20,000 for a family of three. If funding comes through, childless adults also would be eligible for Medicaid up to that income level.

Advocates argue that by covering more parents, more children would be brought into the system. Also, extending Medicaid to childless adults is contingent upon approval from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which has not yet been granted.

Meanwhile, some legislators suggested that other health needs are not being addressed, including an expansion in dental coverage, for which some advocates have pushed.

Dental care for vulnerable residents came to the forefront this year after the death of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old boy from Prince George's County. His mother said she couldn't find a Medicaid dentist to see him before an untreated tooth infection spread to his brain.

Sen. John C. Astle, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, raised the issue of dental care during the hearing but then conceded that cost is an obstacle. "The problem," he said, "is how are we going to pay for this."

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