- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Health insurance changes imposed by the Ehrlich administration would increase costs to state employees despite a legislative directive in the Maryland budget that was intended to provide benefits at no additional charge.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the two other members of the Board of Public Works — Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy Kopp — approved new health care contracts this month that will increase co-payments under some insurance plans from $5 to $15 and require some employees for the first time to pay a $50 charge for using hospital emergency rooms.

Some benefits also may be cut, and premiums are expected to increase Jan. 1.

When the legislature approved the current budget last spring, it inserted a provision prohibiting any change in the level of benefits unless both the administration and unions agreed to the change.

The administration, which opposed the directive, contends that the legislature does not have the power to use the budget to require the state to increase its contribution to health insurance for about 100,000 state employees.

Union officials and legislative leaders are criticizing the administration for ignoring the budget directive and are trying to persuade Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, to comply with the budget bill.

Budget Secretary James “Chip” DiPaula has been asked to appear before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee on Tuesday to defend the administration’s actions.

“The committee is quite concerned,” said Sen. Ulysses Currie, Prince George’s County Democrat and chairman of the committee.

Mr. Currie said Mr. DiPaula said during a hearing on the health issue this year that he was looking for ways to contain costs and would return to the committee with a proposed solution.

“That did not happen,” Mr. Currie said. “We are trying to work this out.”

The legislature does not have the power to increase appropriations in the budget submitted by the governor unless it approves an increase in fees or taxes to pay for the higher spending.

Mr. DiPaula said the change in insurance contracts will save taxpayers millions of dollars, but he could not provide a figure.

The budget contained an additional $22.8 million for health insurance premiums, but legislative analysts said $47 million would be needed to maintain the status quo.

Union officials said the increases in co-payments and anticipated premium increases would negate the $752 pay increase given to state employees, their first raise in three years.

The largest state employee union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92, has asked the governor to suspend the reduction in benefits.

“He just seems so intent not to bargain with us or consider this, even though it is the law,” said union President Sally Davies.

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