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Panel kills Medicare premium equity bill

March 24, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - A Maryland General Assembly panel has rejected legislation that would have lowered Medicare HMO premiums for residents in Washington County and other rural areas of the state.

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Instead, leaders in the House of Delegates are urging the federal government to fix the problem of unequal premiums across the country.

"It's not over. Citizens in rural Maryland should not be penalized by paying more for health care than their urban counterparts," said Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington.

This was the second year that the legislation co-sponsored by Donoghue was rejected by the House Economic Matters Committee.

Unlike last year, Donoghue has renewed hope that the federal government is ready to face the problem.

"The only real solution will come at the federal level. It just took a little longer for people to understand," Donoghue said.

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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.

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

The change affected about 1,000 Washington County residents.

BlueCross BlueShield says it had no choice but to raise its rates because of a federal contract at the heart of the problem.

Under the contract, 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.

Earlier this month, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Economic Matters Committee Chairman Michael E. Busch wrote to congressional leaders, urging them to boost funding for the managed-care program.

The Washington County Commission on Aging agrees that the problem lies with the federal government, said Executive Director Frederick F. Otto.

The Commission on Aging has been asked to mobilize bus loads of people to lobby on Capitol Hill, he said.

The Association of Maryland Hospitals also is pressuring Congress to fix the disparity.

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