- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Democratic lawmakers are working on Senate and House bills that would require the state insurance commissioner to hold a public hearing before allowing any health maintenance organizations to increase their premiums.

HMOs said last week that they will increase their rates to recoup funds from a 2 percent tax on their premiums that the Democrat-controlled legislature levied last month, thus passing on the tax to their customers.

“I think there should have been some consideration before the rate pass-through was granted,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat. “Before a company can change its rates, it has to go through a hearing process.”

Mr. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. last week accused Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr. of partisan motives when he posted a bulletin that said HMOs could pass the tax on to their customers if they notify the Maryland Insurance Administration in writing of their intentions.

A legal opinion from the state attorney general’s office found no wrongdoing in Mr. Redmer’s bulletin.

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, Baltimore County Democrat, on Wednesday introduced a bill that would require public hearings for HMO premium increases.

Delegate John Adams Hurson, Montgomery Democrat, said he is working on a similar measure to introduce in the House.

Neither Mrs. Kelley nor Mr. Hurson was available for comment yesterday.

Karen Barrow, spokeswoman for the Maryland Insurance Administration, declined to comment on the legislation.

“We haven’t had the opportunity to thoroughly review [the bill] yet,” she said.

Henry P. Fawell, spokesman for Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said Democratic lawmakers — who outnumber Republicans more than 2-to-1 in both chambers of the General Assembly — should just accept the consequences that come with enacting a tax increase.

“The governor warned repeatedly, for exactly two years, that any increase in HMO taxes would be passed along to those who could least afford it,” Mr. Fawell said. “The legislators ignored that advice at their own peril, and now, working Marylanders are paying more in taxes because of it.”

Republican lawmakers this week are expected to submit legislation aimed at repealing the tax.

“We are still working on getting [the bill] drafted,” Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, Somerset Republican, said yesterday. “It will be the same bill submitted in the House.”

Health insurers have estimated that the tax will cost them as much as $20 million this year. The increased premiums will cost the average family about $200 more a year.

Revenue from the HMO tax — an estimated $64 million over three years — will be used to subsidize doctors’ malpractice insurance premiums, which have risen nearly 70 percent in the past two years.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, had proposed using $48.5 million from the state’s general fund to subsidize the doctors’ insurance bills.

His budget set aside $30 million to defray the cost of medical-malpractice premiums and $18.5 million in Medicaid reimbursements, the state’s budget office said.

The Medicaid reimbursements will total $37 million when the federal government matches the state’s payment. The Medicaid funds will help general surgeons, neurosurgeons, obstetricians, orthopedists and emergency-room physicians defray costs.

Delegate Pat McDonough, Baltimore County Republican, said yesterday that he is introducing legislation to designate English as Maryland’s official language.

The bill would not prohibit other languages from being taught in Maryland schools, he said, but it would maintain that government-posted road signs, paperwork, legal postings, official documents and publications be written in English.

“The language of business is English,” said Delegate Richard K. Impallaria, a fellow Baltimore County Republican who is co-sponsoring the bill. “If you want to keep your state on the fast track, the fast track is English.”

Mr. Miller wants Marylanders to be able to vote early.

Mr. Miller, Prince George’s Democrat, submitted a bill yesterday that would allow Maryland voters to cast ballots in the days leading up to Election Day.

More than a dozen other states allow early voting, but Marylanders can only vote by going to polling places on the day of primary and general elections, unless they cast absentee ballots.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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