Advocates Seek to Revive Health Bill, Cigarette Tax

By SHARAHN D. BOYKIN, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS - In a last ditch effort to revive a sweeping health care proposal, the NAACP and Maryland health care advocates pleaded for the Senate on Wednesday to pass a bill which would greatly expand coverage through a cigarette tax increase.

"We can't wait any longer," said Myisha Patterson, the national health coordinator for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, at a news conference on Wednesday. "To wait till the next legislative session will put the lives of 100,000 Marylanders at risk."

But the advocates may be lobbying in vain. Although the bill had the strong backing of House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel, and sailed through the House by a vote of 102 to 37, it was greeted with a complete lack of enthusiasm when it reached the Senate last week.

"They [residents] don't want high taxes," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr, D-Calvert. "They want good government. Eventually we have to move forward on the heath care plan, but not right now. We have to be fiscally responsible."

The bill promised to expand Medicaid and allow dependents to stay on their parents' health insurance policy till age 25.

The proposal also allotted $50 million for Prince George's Hospital Center, the county-owned hospital whose financial troubles have spanned the last five administrations and four decades. The state would have funneled $10 million each year to hospital system over the course of five years.

In an effort to get the bill moving again, health care advocates said they chose Wednesday, the 39th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, for their rally. They planned to hand deliver letters to Senators in an appeal to pass the proposal.

" ... we will make Dr. King's dream for health care come true on the anniversary of his assassination," said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative who referred to King's statement, "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane."

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles, said he stands behind the Senate president's decision not to back the proposal. Miller has said the money should be spent on the state's "structural deficit," and not on new programs. For that same reason, Middleton opposes the tax.

"A cigarette tax may be part of a tax package the next time we come together," Middleton said. "It's not going to be a funding source for this year."

Busch said Senate leaders had been on board with resolving the state's health care issues at the beginning of the session, despite their present opposition to the tax.

"I think it's unfortunate," Busch said. "I think everybody, including Senator Middleton, came into this session trying to solve the problem. Coming into the session the [Senate] president was the most vocal, but for some reason he decided not to follow up on that."

According to the proposal's chief sponsor, Delegate Peter A. Hammen, D-Baltimore, the tax is the major funding source.

"In order to do something meaningful and sustainable, we need a stable revenue source," Hammen told Senate Finance Committee members last week. "It's sustainable with the cigarette tax, and it's certainly meaningful."

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