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Health bill designed as safety net

February 25, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

ANNAPOLIS - While legislation to legalize slot machine gambling has dominated recent discussions in the Maryland General Assembly, health and medical issues continue to occupy attention as well.

The House on Thursday approved the Community Health Care Access and Safety Net Act of 2005, which is designed to help uninsured and under-insured Marylanders get access to medical care.

Co-sponsored by Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, and Del. Richard B. Weldon, R-Washington/Frederick, the bill would provide operating grants to community health centers, provide services to low-income people and provide other resources.

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Of particular interest to senior citizens, the bill would help those now participating in the Maryland Senior Prescription Drug Program and MedBank, Donoghue said.

About 35,000 Marylanders participate in the Maryland Senior Prescription Drug Program, including 1,243 in Washington County, he said.

The program is slated to end Jan 1, 2006. "Come Jan. 1, 2006, when that program ends, the federal Medicare Part D kicks in - but it wouldn't cover everybody," Donoghue said.

The bill "puts a funding mechanism in place to capture people caught between the two," including the uninsured, the underinsured and people who tend to use hospital emergency rooms for treatment, Donoghue said.

Funding sources

The money will come from several sources, including money remaining from the Senior Prescription Drug Program, money from the Cigarette Restitution fund and money from an agreement between the state and insurer CareFirst as part of CareFirst's outreach program.

Donoghue said matching funds also would be available to federally qualified community health centers, such as Walnut Street Family Practice in Hagerstown, for technology that would connect these clinics with hospitals and doctors' offices to better coordinate care.

He said the bill is designed to help clients "get used to getting care from other sources than emergency rooms." A visit to a community clinic costs an average of $80 to $100, Donoghue said, while an emergency room visit costs $800 to $1,000. That cost must be absorbed by others if the client can't pay.

"This is a major effort to get a handle on the cost of uncompensated care," Donoghue said.

Money also earmarked for MedBank

The bill also provides money for MedBank, which suffered cuts in Gov. Robert Ehrlich's proposed operating budget for fiscal year 2006. Donoghue said the program needs a minimum of $2 million per year, and had been allotted about $500,000. Statewide, about 10,000 Marylanders benefit from MedBank, including 1,151 in Washington County. The program provides about $21.5 million worth of medications at no cost to its clients. In Washington County, clients received $3 million worth of medicines in 2004.

Through MedBank, pharmacies send prescription drugs directly to the agency, which distributes them directly to doctors.

All five Washington County House members voted for the bill. A similar bill was filed in the Senate.

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