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Advocates rally for bills that would expand access to health care

Brige Dumais, a cho-chair of End Medical Debt Maryland led a rally March 13 at Lawyers’ Mall in Annapolis. Photo by William J. Ford.

Phil Ateto of Annapolis said his individual health care premiums increased from $175 per month 14 years ago to just under $800 now.

“It’s become clear that if I can’t pay these costs, and if I can’t work, then I should just die, or at a minimum be sentenced to life and poverty and shame,” said Ateto, an activist with Re:Action, a D.C.-based progressive organization.

Ateto joined a few dozen health care advocates and supporters Monday at Lawyers’ Mall in Annapolis to encourage state lawmakers to pass legislation to expand access to affordable health care programs. The rally was organized by several nonprofit, union and other groups labeled “End Medical Debt Maryland,” which wants to decrease medical costs and open up health care access for low-income and undocumented residents.

The rally also happened exactly one week before the legislature’s “crossover day,” the day bills must get through one chamber of the legislature to guarantee consideration in the other.

One bill backed by the group is House Bill 588/Senate Bill 365, “The Access to Care Act.”

The House Health and Government Operations Committee voted 17-4 on Friday to advance the bill to the full House chamber. Del. Bonnie Cullison (D-Montgomery) is the lead House sponsor.

Meanwhile, the Senate version sponsored by Sen. Clarence Lam (D-Howard County) was heard last month before the Finance Committee, where it remains.

Under the legislation, any resident, regardless of immigration status, could enroll in the state’s Health Benefit Exchange Fund, which would include funding to create a Qualified Resident Enrollment Program. The program would benefit un-incarcerated residents who are not not eligible for a federal premium tax credit, Medicare, or the state’s children’s health plan.

A fiscal note say the plan must be approved by the U.S. secretaries of Health and Human Services and the Treasury for a federal state innovation waiver application by July 1, 2024.

If the waiver gets approved and program established by the health benefit exchange board, expenditures would increase by at least $500,000 in fiscal year 2025 and decrease to $250,000 annually for the next three years.

An estimated 29,413 individuals would enroll in the program in two years and increase to 51,380 by 2028, according to the fiscal note.

Several organizations offered support in written testimony to the Senate Some asked for an amendment that would ensure that 275,000 undocumented residents receive the same subsidy rate as others covered under the Affordable Care Act. Those residents are currently ineligible to enroll in the health exchange that oversees the state’s health insurance marketplace.

“Access to routine yearly checkups will ensure that our undocumented immigrant children, youth, and adults live better, healthier, and more productive lifestyles that ultimately make our communities more vibrant,” wrote Franca Brilliant, advocacy and development director for Nonprofit Montgomery in Montgomery County. “This common-sense legislation is uncontentious and aligns Maryland with its values of protecting life and treating all people with dignity, respect, and care.”

Some of the other legislation advocates rallied for on Monday are:

  • House Bill 376/Senate Bill 184 – seeks to prohibit health insurers and providers from imposing a copayment for diagnostic breast examinations. The House bill, sponsored by House Speaker Pro Tem Sheree Sample-Hughes (D-Lower Shore), received a 134-0 vote March 2. The Senate gave preliminary approval with amendments Thursday on the legislation by Sen. Pam Beidle (D-Anne Arundel), who serves as chief sponsor in that chamber.
  • House Bill 283/Senate Bill 460, The Trans Health Equity Act – The House held a hearing Feb. 14 of the bill led by lead sponsor Anne Kaiser (D-Montgomery). The Senate, where the bill sponsored for a second year in a row by Sen. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City), held a hearing Feb. 28. The purpose is to expand Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming health care.
  • House Bill 329 – A hearing on the bill labeled Commission on Universal Healthcare is scheduled for Thursday before the House committee. Del. Shelia Ruth (D-Baltimore County) serves as the lead sponsor to create a commission to develop a plan by July 2026 to establish a universal health care program.

“This package gets us closer to everyone having health care,” said Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery), who attended most of the rally and sponsor of House Bill 333 that received a unanimous vote in the House committee on Friday in support. “We made progress on medical debt, [but] this year it’s about paying back the money that was collected from people who should have been eligible for free care. This makes those patients eligible, so that’s really important just from a justice perspective.”


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Advocates rally for bills that would expand access to health care