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O'Malley signs 170 bills into law, Ehrlich responds

Gov. Martin O'Malley gave the state more power to prosecute Medicaid fraud and established a patient-centered medical care program, among the 170 bills he signed into law Tuesday morning.

"Today is a great day for health care," said Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who lobbied for the bills on behalf of the governor. The Democratic administration said the measures will help the state reduce medical costs and improve care. The crackdown on Medicaid fraud comes after three years of unsuccessful attempts to pass the legislation, Brown said.

The new law, called the False Claims Act, encourages whistle-blowers to come forward by allowing anyone with knowledge of false Medicaid claims to file a lawsuit and share a percentage of damages. The patient-centered medical care bill, through financial incentives to doctors, encourages a focus on preventive care.

The ceremonial bill signing, the first of three this spring, began hours after the midnight conclusion of this year's General Assembly legislative session. Lawmakers now switch to campaign mode; all 188 legislators, as well as the governor, face a November election.

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is challenging O'Malley, held a news briefing Tuesday afternoon and said: "I don't think much of anything happened in Annapolis this session."

Ehrlich said measures toughening punishments for sex offenders should have come together much sooner. Like many important initiatives in Annapolis, lawmakers were still crafting the bill in the final hours of the session.

"That shouldn't have been heavy lifting," Ehrlich said. "That fact that it had to go down [to] the last day I think was embarrassing to a lot of us."

Turning to the campaign, Ehrlich said that "a lot of truth will come out," and promised it would not be a "grudge match" between "two people who allegedly don't like each other."

Other bills signed into law Tuesday include new requirements for criminal background checks on day care providers and on private school employees, a ban on use of the chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) in baby bottles and a number of local liquor law tweaks.

Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican, attended the bill-signing but criticized some of the laws that are now on the books.

He said the looming election caused the Democratic legislature to focus "on their special interests." Trial lawyers, he said, would be the largest beneficiaries of the False Claims Act, which will open hospitals to civil lawsuits for fraud.

The governor also picked environmental causes over citizens' concerns, Kittleman said, by pushing forward solar energy targets that will slightly increase consumer energy bills, a proposal by the governor that has not yet been signed into law.

"In a year where there wasn't money, they chose to reward their base," Kittleman said. "It didn't cost the state anything, but it will cost the citizens."

O'Malley's next two bill-signings are scheduled in May.

Baltimore Sun reporter Annie Linskey contributed to this article.

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