Plea made to governor for Medicare expansion

The Baltimore Sun

Health care advocates implored Gov. Martin O'Malley yesterday to continue a planned expansion of the Medicaid program even as he is expected to severely cut the state's budget to fill a huge budget shortfall.

O'Malley, a Democrat, indicated he may not be able to fully fund the health care expansion in the budget he submits to the General Assembly next week, though he noted that a federal stimulus package in the coming weeks could change his plans. Congress is working on a package that includes additional Medicaid dollars for states.

"There will have to be some slowing of the ramp-up to full funding of certain additional initiatives that all of us believe in. We just don't have the money to do it," O'Malley told reporters at the State House. He added that the amount and timing of federal help is likely to be a "big variable" for the future of the Medicaid program.

Many states, faced with deficits brought on by the national recession, are considering Medicaid cuts to balance budgets. Maryland faces a $1.9 billion budget shortfall and is in the process of increasing Medicaid eligibility to eventually insure more than 100,000 low-income residents who lack health insurance. The expansion was adopted by the legislature in 2007.

The Maryland Hospital Association and the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative called on O'Malley to preserve the expansion, which has enabled more than 25,000 residents to enroll through promotions that included the Ravens football team. They argued that the expansion saves lives and reduces costs that add to insurance premiums for all residents.

Under the law, parents with annual incomes up to 116 percent of federal poverty guidelines, which is about $20,500 for a family of three, became eligible for Medicaid last July. The limit had previously been 40 percent of poverty, which many considered low in a state with among the highest median income in the nation. Adults without children up to the higher level are scheduled to become eligible this July.

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