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Commentary Health Care

Vincent DeMarco: Maryland Leads on Health Care

Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), second from left, and Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), second from right, sponsored legislation to strengthen the Affordable Care Act in Maryland. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

As Maryland deals with the ravaging effects of the coronavirus, it’s worth recognizing our standing as a leader among the states on health care. For decades, Maryland has been a bipartisan trailblazer in the health care arena under both Democratic and Republic governors, and we continued that during the 2020 General Assembly session.

In a key step, the General Assembly passed legislation securing funding for the new Prescription Drug Affordability Board. This board, created a year ago, is the first of its kind in the nation and has the power to review and establish maximum costs for certain high-cost drugs purchased by state and local governments. It will also recommend to the legislature how to make high-cost drugs more affordable for all of us. The legislation passed this year authorizes the board to collect a fee from pharmaceutical companies and other drug-industry businesses, with the revenue used to pay for the board’s critical work.

In passing this bill overwhelmingly and with bipartisan support, the General Assembly made a statement that it is serious about bringing down the high costs of prescription drugs – a major issue for many people in our state. We thank board chair Van Mitchell for proposing this measure and House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson for introducing it.

The legislature also passed an important bill that essentially codifies key protections in the Affordable Care Act, which was passed by Congress 10 years ago. This bill, sponsored by Sen. Brian Feldman, Del. Shane Pendergrass and Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk, puts the state on record in its support for key aspects of the ACA, such as the law’s ban on insurers discriminating against people with preexisting health conditions. The ACA, despite its enormous success shrinking disparities in coverage rates among racial groups over the past decade, is still under fire in Congress and the courts, so this new state law is a valuable tool in case the ACA is overturned.

Another important bill sets up a study of how the state can provide subsidies to make health insurance more affordable to individuals. This bill marks the next phase in an ongoing effort to implement and strengthen the ACA in the state.

The state, for example, instituted a reinsurance program a few years ago that helped bring down insurance premiums. But there’s work to be done to make those premiums even more affordable, and this new study will help us decide on the right approach.

The General Assembly took important action in increasing the state tax on tobacco products, which will help bring down smoking rates, make the state healthier and generate revenue for education. For years, Maryland has been a leader in setting taxes on tobacco and alcohol, and this new law expands that progress, thanks to the hard work of the lead sponsors, Senator Cory McCray and Delegate Eric Luedtke, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

The past several weeks also saw us implement the Maryland Easy Enrollment Health Insurance Program, which allows people to begin the process of enrolling in low-cost or free health insurance by simply checking a box on their state tax returns. Created last year by the legislature, this program is now allowing thousands of Marylanders to sign up for insurance, which helps protect them – and all of us – in this challenging time. We are grateful to Michele Eberle, the executive director at the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, and her team for doing a good job implementing this easy enrollment program and for creating a special enrollment period during the virus outbreak.

In Congress, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen is now pushing legislation that would make it easier for other states to create similar programs, which will spread another Maryland idea nationally.

We are fortunate to have leaders like Senators Van Hollen, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and their colleagues in Congress, along with our terrific state legislative leaders.  They are committed to improving our health care system and have put in countless hours studying the best ways to do that.

Over the years, our state has been a leader in establishing an all-payer hospital system that keeps costs down, expanding Medicaid to provide coverage for lower-income Marylanders, implementing and shoring up the ACA, and bringing down prescription drug costs. The Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative is proud to partner with hundreds of organizations around the state to help advance these policy changes that make Maryland healthier.

Today, as we face a massive pandemic and a generational health care challenge, we are thankful that our state’s health care system is strong and getting stronger.


The writer is president of the Maryland Citizen’s Health Initiative.


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Vincent DeMarco: Maryland Leads on Health Care