- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006

Health care was the issue of the day in Maryland’s governor’s race last week.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican seeking re-election, announced a program that provides government-funded health care to an additional 30,000 poor Marylanders.

“Improving the health of Marylanders has been a central priority of my administration from Day One,” Mr. Ehrlich said during a visit last Monday to Jai Medical Center in Baltimore — home turf of his Democratic rival for governor, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley.

“By dramatically expanding health care coverage for vulnerable citizens, we are building on our considerable successes in making Maryland a better and healthier place to live,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “Since we took office, we have expanded access to health care to 94,000 additional Marylanders in need.”

The Primary Adult Care program, which is paid for with state and federal funds, covers primary-care physician office visits, prescription drugs, outpatient mental health care and other limited health services for qualifying persons. The program does not cover specialty care, hospital care or emergency-room visits.

Meanwhile, Mr. O’Malley was in nearby Baltimore County that same day promising that, if elected governor, he would address the projected shortage of nurses in the state.

“We have to make sure that patient care is guided by common sense, is guided by knowledge, is guided by the nurses and doctors and not by big corporate profit lines,” he said. “Investing in our people, investing in our nurses, that is how we make the way forward.”

The state will suffer a shortage of nearly 13,000 nurses by 2010, according to the Center for Health Workforce Development at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

Mr. O’Malley promised more nursing-school scholarships, more scholarships to train nursing-school teachers and plans to give nurses better pay and staffing policies at hospitals.

He also picked up the endorsement of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, one of Maryland’s most liberal Democrats and an outspoken harbinger of the nursing shortfall.

“There is a nursing shortage in America. There is a nursing shortage in our [Veterans Administration] hospitals. There is a shortage of nurses right now in Iraq, and there is a shortage right here in Maryland,” Miss Mikulski said. “I can’t get the president to pay attention. In Maryland, I can’t get Bobby Ehrlich to pay attention.”

“We need new leadership,” she said. “This is not about politics. It is about patients.”

Miss Mikulski joined Mr. O’Malley at one of his campaign’s “kitchen table” stops, in which he meets with constituents around the kitchen table in the home of a supporter. Last Monday, the stop was in a home in Lutherville and included about 10 nurses.

Mr. O’Malley, who also was accompanied by his running mate, Delegate Anthony G. Brown of Prince George’s County, spent about 45 minutes listening to the nurses’ concerns about their profession.

At the event, Mr. O’Malley circulated a white paper that criticized Mr. Ehrlich for waiting until this year to introduce legislation that combines the state’s scholarship programs for nursing students and teachers. “Despite the recognized importance of this issue, no serious action has been taken,” Mr. O’Malley said.

In response, Ehrlich spokesman Henry P. Fawell noted that the governor has increased nursing scholarships by $1.1 million — more than doubling the size of the scholarship fund — and created a task force to break down barriers to homeownership affecting nurses and members of other vital professions.

“The governor has a tremen-dous record and, unlike Mayor O’Malley, he can let his record speak for itself,” Mr. Fawell said. “Mayor O’Malley is short on record and long on rhetoric.”

• Tax support

A letter was mailed last Monday to every candidate running for statewide office and the legislature in Maryland asking them to do something that politicians usually avoid at all cost in an election year — endorse a tax increase.

But officials of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative expect to get lots of takers, since they are asking for a $1-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax, which they say would reduce smoking, especially among young people, and provide money for health care for children and low-income residents.

Two of the first signers were Delegates Sheila E. Hixson of Montgomery County and James W. Hubbard of Prince George’s County, both Democrats.

“This is one tax … we don’t get negative reactions to. We get positive reactions,” Mrs. Hixson said.

Mr. Hubbard said he is sometimes asked how Maryland can afford to raise the tax by $1 a pack. “I say, how can we afford not to?” he said.

Vincent DeMarco, president of Health Care for All — a coalition of more than 600 organizations, businesses, religious groups, labor unions and associations — said a sharp increase in the cost of cigarettes would keep thousands of teenagers from starting to smoke, would save lives and would raise an estimated $155 million a year to provide health care services to people who don’t have insurance.

• Family ties

The son of Middletown, Del., Mayor Ken Branner Jr. and the vice mayor’s niece were among the participants in an interest-free loan program for town employees that has been halted amid scrutiny by state officials.

Mr. Branner, who tried unsuccessfully to prevent details of the program from being made public, previously had denied that relatives of town officials had received money.

Mr. Branner released information about the loans last Monday only after the Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion asserting that town leaders violated the Freedom of Information Act by denying a local businessman information about the loans. In a 14-page opinion issued a week earlier, Deputy Attorney General W. Michael Tupman gave Middletown officials until July 22 to release the names.

The records show that Mr. Branner’s son, town electrician Ken Branner III, received $11,350, and that Town Clerk Rebecca Ennis, niece of Vice Mayor Jim Reynolds, borrowed $13,000. A $5,000 loan went to cashier Megan Smith, girlfriend of council member Robert McGhee’s son, who has a child with Miss Smith.

The three were among 31 town employees who received $265,700 in loans approved by Mr. Branner for employees claiming financial hardship. Mr. Branner’s son and Mr. Reynolds’ niece were the only employees to receive more than $10,000, the limit when the program started in early 2004.

Mr. Branner suspended the program June 5 after state auditor R. Thomas Wagner Jr. and the state Attorney General’s Office launched investigations in response to an article in the Wilmington News Journal.

Mr. Branner contended that he never denied that relatives had received money, but told a reporter only that he would not say whether any elected officials’ relatives had received loans. He did not try to clarify or correct his statement despite repeated references in the newspaper in recent weeks to his denial of relatives receiving money.

“I hate getting into battles. There’s no way anybody can win with the newspaper,” Mr. Branner said, adding that he never intended to mislead.

“I hope they haven’t lost confidence in us,” Mr. Branner said. “We have to work to get that trust back.”

• Investigation

The Maryland state prosecu-tor’s office is investigating possible campaign-finance violations involving a political action committee formed by the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce.

A letter from the prosecutor’s office to officials with the state elections board said a review found probable cause to warrant a probe of suspected “impermissible expenditures.”

A complaint filed in May said the PAC broke the law when it spent $4,700 on a newspaper ad to endorse candidates in last year’s Frederick city election.

Under state laws, PACs are not allowed to promote candi-dates in municipal elections.

• S.A. Miller contributed to this column, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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