By ERICH WAGNER
ANNAPOLIS (March 5, 2009)—Lawmakers and advocates urged the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday to pass a bill that would require health care for all Maryland children.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Rob Garagiola, D-Montgomery, would require that parents provide health care for their children and allow families who make more than 300 percent of the federal poverty level—about $66,000 a year for a family of four—to buy into the Maryland Children's Health Program.
Garagiola said this requirement would be a "soft mandate," enacted primarily as an education and outreach program, because 100,000 of the 140,000 children in the state without health insurance are already eligible for existing state health care programs. The goal is to make sure families know about and take advantage of these programs, he said.
The mandate would take effect in 2010, but the enforcement statute—a $25 tax penalty for single filers and $50 for joint filers—would not occur until the 2012 tax season and would sunset in 2013.
The Maryland Children's Health Program provides health care to poor families at a significant discount. Under current law, families living at up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible, and if passed, families who make more would be eligible to buy in at about $170 per child per month, according to the Maryland Health Care Commission.
The legislation would also require the Maryland Health Care Commission, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Maryland Insurance Administration to file reports with the General Assembly in 2011 and 2013 outlining recommendations for further education and outreach, as well as possible ways to assist more families to provide health care for their children.
Garagiola said he has heard concerns about the requirement to provide children with health insurance, but that the bill has broad support from health care providers and senators.
Health care advocates said having more children insured will reduce overall costs.
"For asthmatic kids, four times as many uninsured asthmatic children are hospitalized [than insured asthmatic children], and twice as many utilize the hospital emergency department for an acute asthma attack," said Diane Briggs, director of external affairs for the Primary Care Coalition of Montgomery County.
Pegeen Townsend, senior vice president of legislative policy for the Maryland Hospital Association, called the legislation an incremental step towards covering everybody in the state.
"Not only will [the bill] incentivize those parents in that next level of income to purchase insurance for their children," Townsend said. "But in addition, it will also help flush out those who are currently eligible for the Medicaid program and who are not right now enrolled."
Michael Sullivan, director of communications for CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, said his company supports the legislation, and that it is "an embarrassment" that 140,000 children in the state go without health insurance.
Dr. Virginia Keane, president of the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said she supported the bill, but had reservations about whether the Maryland Children's Health Program would be affordable for families making more than 300 percent of the poverty level. She fears they would choose to buy cheaper children's insurance programs with poor benefits.
"We are most concerned that families may opt to purchase these low-cost programs that are basically catastrophic programs that have very high deductibles, that have very high co-pays, and really don't give kids the access to the care they need," Keane said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.