Peter Beilenson appears to believe that the best defense is a good offense.
Appearing before the Howard County Council last week, the health officer called Healthy Howard's initial enrollment period "a tremendous success" and vigorously defended the Ulman administration's signature program before the council's lone critic, Fulton Republican Greg Fox, could say anything.
The program seeks to extend access to health services to uninsured county residents. Liddy Garcia-Bunuel, director of Healthy Howard Inc., the nonprofit created to run the program, accompanied Beilenson, along with two other program staffers.
Beilenson came armed with updated statistics, including how many residents in each council member's district have enrolled either in existing health insurance programs or in Healthy Howard, which offers a full range of services for as little as $50 a month to people without health insurance for at least six months.
"We've been getting people enrolled in every part of the county," Beilenson said. "We are a unique-in-the-nation program."
In a series of exchanges with Fox, Beilenson labeled the councilman's criticisms of too little research and too few county residents enrolled in the program as political and personal.
"You can throw things at us all you want," Beilenson said to Fox at one point during the council's monthly administrative meeting Monday. "I know there is a political aspect to this."
Beilenson also accused Fox of "ad hominem attacks."
"If you have a better solution, it would be helpful to point that out, rather than throwing bricks," the health officer said.
Fox questioned the department's estimate of the number of uninsured residents in the county, derived by Beilenson from census data and put at between 20,000 and 26,000 people. Beilenson said the first month's enrollment of about 1,100 people represents 7 percent of all the uninsured people in the county.
"It's a guesstimate," Fox said, not a fact.
Beilenson responded immediately.
"I'd be happy to do a household survey which would cost several million dollars in this budget year," he said.
Fox insisted that more communication with the public and use of existing resources might have revealed ahead of time that the vast majority of people who applied to Healthy Howard in October then found that they qualified for existing insurance programs.
Beilenson said there are 123 residents qualified or enrolled in Healthy Howard, and he plans to target people over the next few months who are likely to qualify to bolster enrollment. He wants to cull contract workers without benefits, community college students and subsidized housing residents who need medical services.
Each of the other four council members, all Democrats, expressed support for the program. Courtney Watson, who represents Ellicott City and Elkridge, noted it has just begun.
"I think we all agreed to support this program in pilot phase. We are in that period," she said. "Healthy criticism is good because it sharpens the focus."
Watson labeled the size of the initial enrollments "amazing."
Fox said after the Monday morning meeting that his motives were neither political nor personal.
"He's just thin-skinned," the councilman said of Beilenson.
GOP and Facebook
Only a handful of Republicans at a recent gathering raised their hands when asked whether they are on Facebook, the popular social networking Web site.
The House minority whip, Del. Christopher B. Shank of Washington County, was the one who asked the question. Shank wanted to know, he said, because the GOP "did a miserable job" of using the Internet to organize in 2008.
"Obama and the Democrats cleaned our clock with that," he told about 80 people at the Turf Valley Hotel and Resort on Jan. 9. The $75-per-ticket breakfast was a fundraiser for Del. Warren E. Miller.
Facebook and social networking sites like it are even more vital for Republicans because, he said, The Baltimore Sun and Washington Post are biased in favor of Obama and Democrats. The Internet allows information to move unfiltered to voters, he said.
"On Facebook, we can get it directly," he said. "We no longer need to rely on the biased media."
Miller told supporters he needs more money for his 2010 campaign because he expects "serious" opponents.
Looking ahead to this year's General Assembly session, Shank and Miller said their big battles will be over state spending and a looming budget shortfall.
"Our lot in life is to say, 'No,' " Miller said. " 'No' is not a bad word. We need to spend less."
Shank praised Miller and fellow Howard Republicans Del. Gail H. Bates and state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, both of whom attended, for working to limit spending. But Republicans are fighting "the bailout mentality" in the Democrat-dominated assembly, which, he said, involves a vicious circle of bad budget policy.
Liberals are driven by special interest groups that want more spending, Shank said. That in turn prompts tax increases, which then spark more spending. He predicted that after the 2010 elections, Democrats in the General Assembly will raise taxes again.
"It's because they're addicted to spending," Shank said. "They're living beyond their means, and they can't say, 'No.' "
Jonathan Weinstein, 41, an Ellicott City management consultant and Rich Corkran, a retired county teacher who ran for state Senate in 2006, might have been the Democratic opponents Miller had in mind. Weinstein said he's already holding small events to meet people and get his name out, and he has raised more than $5,000 toward next year's campaign. He's trying to reach out to both Democrats and Republicans in western Howard, where the GOP dominates.
"Instead of blaming others for what's going on, I hope to bring specific proposals," Weinstein said.
Corkran, 61, a county schoolteacher from Ellicott City, ran against Kittleman for Senate in 2006. This time, he said, his goal is a seat in the House of Delegates.