ANNAPOLIS – There are working families in Maryland that must choose between medicine for their children and food on their tables, state health officials told lawmakers Tuesday in support of a bill that would set up a new program.
Thriving by Three, introduced by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, would provide free health care and health education for pregnant women and children from birth through age three who cannot afford health insurance and are not offered it through an employer.
The program would cost an estimated $5.6 million annually.
Martin Wasserman, secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, testified before a joint hearing of the House Economic Matters and Environmental Matters Committees that 4,230 children and 1,120 pregnant women would be served. All live at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $39,000 per year for a family of four.
“When I was a practicing pediatrician, I cared for families who said they could not fill prescriptions for their children who had ear infections because they could not afford it,” Wasserman said. “Maryland is the fifth wealthiest state in this country and I feel we should do better than that.”
Dr. Tim Dorn, president of the American Academy of Pediatricians, said Thriving by Three was the right thing to do for the health of Maryland’s children.
It “would provide important coverage for our most fragile population — our children,” Dorn said. “Maryland continues to have a high rate of infant mortality. This bill is a step in the right direction.”
Wasserman agreed, saying the program could make the health care system better by treating problems early and keeping pregnant women healthy.
But the supporters faced some skeptical questions from lawmakers.
Del. Ronald Guns, D-Cecil, wondered aloud why a family making $39,000 could not buy insurance. He also asked whether the target population wasn’t already served by Medicaid, the state and federal health care program for the poor.
Wasserman explained that Medicaid is for families at even lower levels of income, and Thriving by Three is meant for the working poor.
Donna Jacobs, deputy chief of staff for the governor, explained further in an interview after testifying.
“There is a gap population who can not afford health insurance on their own and can not get it from their employers. It is very clear that the dollars spent on children early on will make for less strain on the resources later,” she said.
Del. Kenneth Schissler, R-Talbot, asked why the program targeted ages birth through three.
Dorn told him that those are the most important developmental ages of a child’s life.
The program got support from the Maryland Hospital Association and the Medical-Chirurgical Society, which represents state physicians.
“We think the governor has made the right choice here,” said Joseph A. Schwartz, Med-Chi’s lobbyist.
Fran Tracy, vice president of government affairs at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Maryland, also supported the program. But she testified that her firm’s Caring Program provides the same services for $198 per year per child.
Nancy Shipnuck, Wasserman’s deputy, told the committees that Thriving by Three’s would cost $500 per year per child.
However, Jacobs, the governor’s aide, said that after the hearing, Tracy had told her that the Blues’ program is for children 14 to 18 years old. She said that there could be discussions with Tracy for a collaborative effort. -30-