ANNAPOLIS – Health initiatives were among the few winners in this year’s Maryland General Assembly, including two controversial issues – the softening of penalties for the medical use of marijuana and the installation of cameras to monitor nursing home care.
Legislation set to reform the state’s largest nonprofit health insurance also made a hurried, but successful trip through the Legislature, passing on Monday night, the last day of the session.
On March 5, Maryland Insurance Commissioner Steven B. Larsen denied CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield’s bid to convert to a for-profit company and be sold to WellPoint Health Networks in California. The House and Senate then almost immediately introduced similar bills aimed at reforming the non-profit company.
“We’re all trying to do the same thing – clean house and reform the (company) board. We want board members who are engaged,” said Delegate Shane Pendergrass, D-Howard, sponsor of the House bill.
After a 15-month investigation, Larsen ruled the conversion and subsequent acquisition of the company was not in the public interest.
The bill, approved by both chambers, sets up a nominating committee that would be responsible for selecting the 12 board members. The governor, House speaker, and Senate president will appoint the committee.
The bill also sets salaries for board members, and an oversight committee to monitor the company.
While the CareFirst legislation was put on a fast track, persistence was the key for two vigorously debated bills that made it to the governor’s desk for the first time in four tries.
In an effort to prevent elderly abuse in nursing homes, lawmakers passed a bill that establishes guidelines for nursing homes to set up cameras in residents’ rooms.
“I think it’s something that is really needed. Cameras are legal and you just need guidelines for their use. That’s all this bill does and people understood that,” said Delegate Marilyn Goldwater, D-Montgomery, bill sponsor and a registered nurse.
Former Delegate Sue Hecht, D-Frederick, had introduced the legislation, dubbed Vera’s law, for three years. It’s named for her mother who was the victim of verbal abuse while residing in a “well-respected” Frederick nursing home.
Hecht said she believes the legislation passed this year because of Goldwater’s support.
Goldwater’s experience as a nurse and the fact that she was a member of the committee that heard the bill helped push it through, said Hecht.
“Again, Maryland is the leader in a lot of issues. I’m very excited for families and people whose homes are nursing homes,” Hecht added.
The bill now awaits the governor’s signature.
The fourth year was the charm for a medical marijuana bill that has also made it to the governor’s desk. This bill lessens the penalties for chronically ill patients caught with marijuana.
The governor said he is leaning toward signing the bill.
It took just two tries to get approval for a bill to designate walking the state exercise. The bill was supported by several organizations including the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association, which saw the legislation as a promotion for healthy living.
That bill, too, is pending the governor’s signature. Two controversial bills – a smoking ban and an abortion issue – failed to make it out of committees this session, but their sponsors said they’re just beginning to push for their passage.
Abortion opponents put all their energy into a measure to require minors to get a judge’s permission when seeking an abortion without their parents’ knowledge. Currently, Maryland allows doctors, instead of judges, to override parental notification.
The bill was withdrawn by its sponsor, Delegate Carmen Amedori, R-Carroll, in order to “keep the bill alive.”
“It gives us an opportunity to foster relationships with the committee members, many of whom are freshmen,” said Amedori. “This was a little tease, it gave people something to think about.”
Sen. Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery, attempted to pass a bill to ban smoking in all public places. However, the Senate Finance Committee gave the bill an unfavorable vote.
“I’m sure there was some heavy lobbying by the tobacco industry,” said Ruben.
Ruben said she hoped Maryland would eventually follow the lead of Delaware, New York and even Ireland, which have all passed similar legislation
“I intend to pursue it again next year,” she said. “I’m hoping this won’t take but two years.”