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A taxpaying solution, help for HMO users and a plea for Larry B

July 09, 1999

Elsewhere on this page (Sunday July 11, NewsPlus, E3) is a column from Washington County Commissioner Paul Swartz, in which he reviews the new county board's first six months in office. In addition to his words of appreciation for his county board colleagues and other government officials is an idea that may be the key to the 2000 session of the Maryland General Assembly.

To retire the county's water and sewer debt, Swartz proposes raising the county's sales tax from 5 to 6 percent, which he calculates would generate $12 million in new money each year. That's enough, he says, to retire the county's water/sewer debt in four years.

The question is: Will our local General Assembly delegation pursue this? They ought to, because while Swartz is too polite to say this, I'm not: the delegation has been missing in action on this issue ever since it arose.

One example: When the director of Maryland's Water Management Administration suggested two years ago that future grants to the city and county would depend on whether the two could work together on sewer service, the two began negotiating.

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This year they worked out a deal (of sorts) and now the same WMA officials who promised state help if that happened say that the area will have to get in line for a grant. Our delegation should be breaking this bureaucratic logjam, but so far the evidence that they've done much is lacking.

As to Swartz's proposal, expect some delegation members to repeat the "No new taxes" mantra. Somebody ask these people, please, what their solution to this debt crisis is. It is not enough to say no to one alternative; it's an elected official's responsibility to provide one of his or her own.

As for the chance of Swartz's proposal passing, the state will probably not allow the county to levy its own sales tax. That's only been done once before, to help Ocean City build its convention center.

However, the state might pass a 1 percent hike in the sales tax, then rebate most of it to the counties where it was collected. Baltimore City and Prince George's County would back that, as would most other governments which are searching for a way to give the people everything they want without raising their taxes.

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An Associated Press story which appeared this week reported that under a new Maryland law, insurers had been ordered to pay for care they'd rejected reimbursement for in five cases. A lobbyist for the health-maintenance organizations immediately issued a statement saying that this low number demonstrated that HMOs are really satisfying most of their customers.

Wrong. Hundreds more cases have been handled without legal action under the new law because of a series of volunteers who mediate disputes between insurers and their customers.

As I told one mediator I interviewed, my hat's off to him and others like him. I hate dealing with my own insurance business, so imagine volunteering to deal with other people's problem claims.

The gentleman advised me that if you feel your insurer has denied you reimbursement you believe you're entitled to, call this number (1-410-576-7201) and request a complaint form.

Fill out the form, then write a separate letter outlining your complaint and make copies of any correspondence with your insurer related to the denied claim. Then you'll be assigned a health-advocacy specialist, who will try to resolve the complaint.

The man I spoke with (a retired pharmacist) said volunteers include retired health-care providers and law students, but emphasized that they have no power to order an insurer to do anything. They attempt to settle cases without legal action, but the ones they judge worthy are sent to the insurance commissioner.

The volunteer mediators clear 70 percent of the cases they get, he said, noting that in some cases, people are not entitled to what they're claiming. That's true, he said, because people don't know their rights and don't read their insurance policies carefully.

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In 1967, I was young teenager who listened to the popular music of the day, mostly Motown hits and other so-called "soul music" played on Washington, D.C. station WOL-AM. It wasn't popular with management, but one deejay, Carroll Henson, started a blues show on Saturday night, introducing me and many others to artists like B.B. King and Elmore James.

Five years ago I discovered those old blues masters all over again on WKMZ-FM's "Sunday Blue Notes" show, hosted by Larry Banks. Mellow and articulate, Banks was content to let the music do the talking, and played plenty of it between 7 p.m. and midnight every Sunday.

But sometime before the year's Hagerstown BluesFest, Banks and the station came to a parting of the ways. I've heard some stories about what might have happened, but have confirmed none of them yet. Banks' replacement, known as "Uncle Fred," seems to be like the proverbial one--armed paper hanger, doing the best he can with what he's got. C'mon KMZ, bring back Larry B.




Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of the Herald-Mail.

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