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Health care lobby asks three pledges

July 11, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

A group that seeks universal health care for Marylanders this week asked the top contenders in the governor's race to back prescription drug funding, hike the cigarette tax again and stop the sale of CareFirst Blue Cross. If the advocates get one out of three they'll be doing well.

Prescription drug funding is the likeliest winner in the bunch, because it would benefit senior citizens who are dealing with a Medicare system put together at a time when patients with serious illnesses were more likely to be hospitalized than medicated.

The reverse is true now, but Medicare rules haven't been changed to reflect this reality. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has already put together a drug plan of her own and we expect her likely opponent, U.S. Rep. Robert Ehrlich, to do the same.

On cigarette taxes, the state government is unlikely to raise them so soon after the last hike. That's because lawmakers are counting on that revenue to fund the first two years of the education improvements recommended by the Thornton Commission. Run the tax up too high and the funding stream might dry up before the General Assembly figures out the next revenue fix.

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As for the proposed sale of the CareFirst Blue Cross to a for-profit provider, it may or may not be a good idea, depending on what sort of deal its proposed purchaser, WellPoint, would accept.

If WellPoint agreed to be the insurer of last resort - Blue Cross' traditional mission, and the one for which the firm has received millions in tax breaks - it might be a good deal.

That's especially true given the fact that the proposed $1.3 billion would be split among the three states, with Maryland's share going to a trust fund to provide health care for the indigent.

Some in the legislature have argued that the price is too low and that some terms of the sale would leave the state with too many liabilities. But the study and negotiation of this proposal are ongoing, and it's unfair and unwise to ask the candidates to decide before the all the research is done.

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