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Bill aims to equalize seniors' health coverage costs

February 25, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - Washington County senior citizens who pay $75 a month for managed care plans would get relief under a bill heard by a Maryland General Assembly committee Thursday.

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For the second year, state lawmakers are trying to help bring down the costs for rural managed-care customers, who are charged for the same coverage that urban residents get for free.

"I'm here to stand up for Western Maryland. As far as I'm concerned the health care needs in Western Maryland are no different than the needs of those in other parts of the state," Del. John P. Donoghue told fellow members of the Economic Matters Committee.

Donoghue, D-Washington, co-sponsored the bill filed by Del. Adelaide C. Eckardt, R-Eastern Shore.

Three years ago, many Medicare customers in Washington County and other parts of the state switched from buying "Medigap" coverage to a zero-premium managed-care plan.

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But in January 1998, most managed-care companies stopped offering the plans. The one remaining, BlueCross BlueShield, began charging $75 monthly premiums in rural counties.

The change affected about 1,000 Washington County residents.

Blue Cross lobbyist Fran Doherty blamed the federal government for the forced change.

Under a contract with the federal government, Blue Cross and other insurance companies get reimbursed for Medicaid patients they cover through managed-care plans.

In the rural areas, those fees didn't cover the cost of the service, she said.

Eckardt said she's been working with members of Congress, but any solution would take too long to help many of the people in need.

"It's people without a voice I continue to hear from," Eckardt testified.

The bill would require managed-care companies to offer the same plans statewide.

Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening had the power to mandate the same thing, but chose not to last month.

Glendening feared the increase in premiums in urban areas.

Also, equalizing the premiums statewide risks driving companies out of the state, resulting in consumers having fewer choices, Doherty said.

Last year, the bill was killed by the Economic Matters Committee.

Even if the bill fails this year, Eckardt said she hopes to keep awareness of the issue alive.

The Association of Maryland Hospitals is pressuring Congress to fix the disparity and has made it a top priority this year, said Association lobbyist Pegeen A. Townsend.

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