Major boost for health coverage effort

The Baltimore Sun

A $500,000 grant from the Horizon Foundation is the latest boost for Howard County's ambitious health access plan for uninsured residents.

The gift provides the bulk of the $750,000 in private donations that County Executive Ken Ulman has said the innovative program, Healthy Howard, needs for the first year of operation.

"To get this support is really tremendous," Ulman said. "It pretty much allows us to reach our goal."

Aetna Insurance, which last week announced a discount dental services plan for program participants, also pledged $56,000.

Ulman and county health officer Peter L. Beilenson announced the program in October, noting the lack of action on the federal and state levels.

Their idea is to combine greater use of existing programs with added services supplied by the Chase Brexton Clinic in Columbia and other health agencies to reduce the use of expensive emergency rooms for regular medical care. The program is not categorized as insurance and would enroll county residents who are citizens starting July 1.

Under the dental plan, participants will pay up to 65 percent of the $2.8 million in annual program costs through monthly fees. Ulman plans to ask the County Council to approve an additional $500,000 in the fiscal 2009 budget for the program.

"Our organization likes innovation and Healthy Howard exemplifies how government can innovate to address core community issues," said Richard M. Krieg, Horizon's president and CEO.

"We believe the government must be the driver of significant, sustainable health care reform," Krieg said. "This seed funding will improve the county's capacity to implement a vital public sector program."

Horizon previously provided $283,000 to the county health department, and $454,000 for the Chase Brexton Clinic, which is expected to be a key facility for program members.

The Healthy Howard plan seeks to provide access to comprehensive health care for about 20,000 residents - including 5,000 children - who don't have insurance. About 2,000 people would be enrolled in the first year, officials have said.

The plan calls for providing health "coaches" to work with patients to develop healthy habits in hopes of reducing the need for medical care.

As part of the plan, the county is working to notify families with annual incomes under $62,000 that their children are eligible for federal health insurance under the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

In addition, bills to provide a place for the program in Maryland law have received unanimous support by legislators in the House and Senate.

Some business interests represented by the Maryland Restaurant Association have expressed reservations about how Howard's program might affect small employers' health insurance for employees, but they are not opposing the program, said Melvin Thompson, the association's vice president.

"We were concerned about them siphoning off [insured] employees. We're going to wait and see what happens when they go to the [county] council," Thompson said, adding that some employers worry that the program would "grow into some form of employer mandate." County officials have stressed they are not forcing anyone to join.

The restaurant group withdrew opposition after Beilenson agreed to an amendment to the state bill that requires applicants who cancel health insurance to wait at least six months before applying to the county program.

Under the Aetna-sponsored dental program, a single person would pay $1.65 per month and a family would pay $3.30 to qualify for dental discounts of 30 percent to 50 percent for various services. A typical six-month visit and cleaning would cost $50 instead of $80, said Mike Bucci, Aetna's marketing vice president.

"This is a major step forward," Ulman said about the dental program, the lack of which has been frustrating for program planners.

"Is this perfect? No. Is it a step in the right direction? Absolutely," he said.

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