- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers said yesterday the 2007 General Assembly will likely end without a deal on health care reform.

The major issue is cost, particularly with the state’s looming structural deficit.

House and Senate lawmakers have argued for months about whether to pay for the proposal by doubling tobacco taxes to $2 a pack so more residents can get state help with health insurance.

“It is highly possible nothing of substance will get done this year,” said Delegate Peter A. Hammen, Baltimore Democrat and sponsor of the tobacco tax idea. He planned to press his point today at a Senate committee hearing on his bill, but said he doubted it would make much difference.

“The House has done everything it could,” Mr. Hammen said.

His plan would chip away at the roughly 750,000 to 800,000 Marylanders without health insurance, but it costs more than $200 million a year.

Senators have said the plan has merit. But Maryland can’t afford it, given the looming deficit.

“I would doubt that we will do anything with the bill,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas McLain “Mac” Middleton, Charles County Democrat.

The Senate and Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, want a smaller health care package, which includes small parts of the House bill such as a requirement that health insurers cover dependent children up to 25. But it skips the major provision of expanding Medicaid.

Mr. Hammer said the House would not be content with a smaller plan.

He said the administration’s bill was a weak piece of legislation in regard to access to health care, and the Senate managed to weaken it further.

“It does very little to reduce the number of the uninsured,” Mr. Hammen said.

With a stalemate shaping up, health advocates planned to redouble efforts to push for a reform package.

“This health care problem’s got to be dealt with this year,” said Vincent DeMarco, president of Maryland Citizens Health Initiative, a group that has been working for five years to expand coverage.

Mr. DeMarco’s group plans a rally tomorrow near the State House. He’s also dispatching doctors and supporters, such as AARP members, to push senators for action this year.

“If we’re going to do it, let’s just do it,” Mr. DeMarco said.

However, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Southern Maryland Democrat, repeated yesterday that this is not the time to start an expensive health care project.

“It’s a mistake to keep spending money you don’t have,” he said. “People do it in their personal life. We shouldn’t do it in government.”

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