Advocates, Maryland lawmakers pitch Health Care for All 2023 legislative agenda

With the 2023 Maryland legislative session about three weeks old, health care advocates and lawmakers announced a five-piece legislative agenda Tuesday that they hope will close remaining gaps in the state’s health insurance marketplace.

The state has made a lot of progress over the past few years in reducing the number of people who don’t have health coverage, said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Health Care for All! Coalition, at a news conference in Annapolis.

As of 2021, about 6% of Marylanders were uninsured, making it among the most well-covered states in the country, according to the United Health Foundation.

“But as Gov. Wes Moore said in his inaugural address, there are still 250,000 uninsured people in Maryland, and we can’t leave them behind,” DeMarco said. “No one’s going to be left behind.”

Eight Democratic lawmakers from jurisdictions including Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Frederick, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties joined DeMarco at the news conference to outline bills they plan to champion this session to make health coverage more affordable and accessible in the state.

Sen. Malcolm Augustine, who represents Prince George’s County, and Del. Lorig Charkoudian, who represents Montgomery County, introduced legislation that would automatically enroll into Medicaid food stamp recipients who are eligible for coverage but have not yet enrolled.

Doing so would lift an administrative burden from low-income Marylanders, as well as the state, the lawmakers said. It also would help more than 60,000 state residents — including 23,000 Black Marylanders and 28,000 Latinos — get coverage, Augustine added.

Del. Ken Kerr of Frederick County and Sen. Brian Feldman of Montgomery County plan to introduce legislation to extend a two-year pilot program they helped pass in 2021 that has provided $20 million in subsidies each year to lower-income adults ages 18 to 34 for them to purchase health care.

As of last year, about 45,000 young people have used the subsidies to enroll in insurance coverage, 17,000 of whom were new to the marketplace, Feldman said.

“It has been a success beyond our wildest dreams, and therefore it would be irresponsible for us to not bring in a bill — Del. Kerr and I —to extend that,” he said.

Feldman also plans to work together with Del. Bonnie Cullison of Montgomery County to sponsor legislation to fully fund and improve the functioning of the Maryland Prescription Drug Affordability Board, which was created in 2019 to set limits on how much state and local governments pay for high-cost medications.

Since Maryland formed the board, other states have followed its lead, creating pharmaceutical cost-control boards of their own.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the fact that other states are looking at our board and how it works says it’s working,” Cullison said.

Cullison also is working with Sen. Clarence Lam of Anne Arundel and Howard counties to introduce legislation that would allow people to purchase health coverage from the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, regardless of their immigration status.

Of the 400,000 Marylanders who remain uninsured, about 100,000 are undocumented immigrants, who are ineligible to purchase private insurance through Maryland Health Connection or enroll in Medicaid, Lam said.

“These are folks who are our neighbors, they’re paying taxes, they’re working, they’re contributing to society and even without a Social Security number, they’re doing a lot to contribute to our communities,” he said. “They’re paying into the system, but they’re not able to access these benefits.”

Sen. Katie Fry Hester of Howard and Montgomery counties and Del. Robbyn Lewis of Baltimore have introduced legislation to give $5 million per year for five years to the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange to reach out to small businesses and help them enroll their employees in health care plans.

Compared with 95% of large businesses in Maryland that offer health insurance to their employees, only 37% of small businesses do, Fry Hester said. One of the barriers, she said, is how complicated and expensive it is to negotiate with providers to secure a health plan for employees.

Through outreach and marketing, the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange could alleviate this burden, the lawmakers said.