ANNAPOLIS Montgomery County’s delegation to the General Assembly will try to rein in health maintenance organizations’ broad powers to deny care to their members.
Gas and tobacco tax increases, both supported by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, also won the backing of some of the county delegation members.
The delegation plans to introduce a bill that would give patients the ability to sue health maintenance organizations – a right they don’t have now — for denial of care.
“The time has come for this,” said Delegate Sharon Grosfeld, D-Montgomery. “More and more people are finding problems with HMOs denying certain kinds of treatment they need, and they have very little recourse to do anything about it.”
New Delegate Joan F. Stern, D- Montgomery, also said some treatment decisions made by health insurance companies concern her.
“HMOs limit a lot of procedures they pay for. I know of instances where patients are forced to go to two or three places before receiving care. You should be able to get everything done at one doctor’s office,” she said.
Stern said she worries about senior citizens who must navigate the health care bureaucracy and other patients who have no one to advocate for them.
Delegate Leon G. Billings, a Democrat from Kensington, also backed a bill that would hold HMOs responsible for failure to deliver on the contracts they made with their members. Health maintenance organizations, he added, must work toward a high standard of care for patients.
But Debbie Rosen McKerrow, a spokeswoman for CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, said the company she represents always “strives to provide the highest quality of care.”
“The goal is to make people stay healthy, so it’s not in the best interest of anyone to stand in the way of that,” she said.
Though she would not comment on the proposed bill, she did say that her company supports accountability.
This session, Montgomery County legislators also said they want to maintain a healthy budget, while still staying under a 5.9 percent spending cap. If the General Assembly were to go beyond the limit, it could mean a cut in programs, legislators said.
The delegation members also said increased taxes, specifically on gas and tobacco must be discussed. The gas tax is currently at 23.5 cents per gallon and the cigarette tax at 36 cents per pack.
Glendening intends to push a gas tax increase through the legislature, however no specific amount was given. The gas tax finances all of Maryland’s transportation needs, including roads, buses and rail systems.
The governor also supports a $1 per pack cigarette tax increase.
While the county delegation members did not commit to the governor’s increases, they wouldn’t say how much of an increase they would support.
“Increasing the gas tax is something none of us want to do, but need for road projects and mass transportation improvements,” said Delegate Carol S. Petzold, vice chairman of the Mongtomery County delegation and a Democrat from Rockville.
Grosfeld hopes more people see the tobacco tax legislation as more of a “health prevention” bill.
“We need to look at this as a means to prevent cancer, particularly in children,” she said.
Maryland’s $250 million budget surplus is going to make any tax increase a tough sell, said Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, R- Clarksville, and chairman of the Howard County Senate delegation.
“With the state treasury bursting at the seams, Id be reluctant to consider any tax increases,” said McCabe. whose district also includes parts of Montgomery County.
Billings, however, said the General Assembly will be a failure if it cuts taxes and doesn’t deal with other problems effectively.
“During this election, the public made it clear they didn’t want to turn the country backwards. They want to continue progress evenly and carefully,” he said.
Other priorities legislators hope to address: education, the deregulation of the electric utility industry; lowering the legal blood alcohol level from .1 to .08; and considering a new ethics law that would ban lobbyists from entertaining legislators.