Health Care Notes

    A new program designed to connect uninsured Maryland residents with available health subsidies and tax credits is showing early signs of success, a state lawmaker said on Tuesday.

    As of March 1, more than 18,000 Maryland residents had checked a box on their tax form indicating they lack coverage. Doing so allows the Comptroller’s office to share their information with the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, the state’s health insurance marketplace.

    Maryland’s Easy Enrollment Health Insurance Program was established last year, the result of legislation sponsored by Sen. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery) and Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel).

    It is considered a first-in-the-nation effort to use the tax-filing process to flag uninsured people who may quality for free or low-cost coverage.

    In remarks on the Senate floor on Tuesday, Feldman said he’s optimistic Maryland will be able to drive its uninsured rate — currently 6% — even lower.

    “It’s a great accomplishment,” he said of the robust early use of the checkoff system. “It has far exceeded our expectations.”

    According to the exchange, 12,595 households, representing 18,156 individuals, are now eligible for the state’s new special enrollment period.

    To determine whether the program is meeting its mandate, the Maryland Health Benefits Exchange will track the filers who checked the box to see how many actually signed up for coverage.

    “This program makes it easy for people to sign up for insurance,” said Michele Eberle, head of the exchange, said in a statement. “We urge Marylanders without insurance to check the box on their tax return and get started on the path to quality, affordable coverage.”

    Getting more people covered — particularly younger adults and healthy persons — helps reduce premiums and uncompensated care, Feldman said. Other states are looking to replicate Maryland’s new program.

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    Feldman and Peña-Melnyk are backing a measure this year to utilize existing health care funds to help Marylanders who lack coverage but who earn too much to qualify for free or low-cost insurance.

    Their proposal, Senate Bill 124 and House Bill 196, would create a State-Based Health Insurance Subsidies Program. There is little fiscal impact to the state because the program would draw from funds collected through a fee charged to the state’s health insurance providers.

    The Maryland Health Benefit Exchange Board would determine if sufficient funds exist to offer reduced subsidies to uninsured residents.

    Vincent DeMarco, head of the Maryland Citizens Health Initiative, said the additional subsidies would benefit people who qualify for some federal tax credits but not enough to make coverage affordable.

    “There’s no new money in this bill,” he said. “It’s money that’s already there, to use for subsidies, assuming the reinsurance program is fully funded.”

    Massachusetts has used a similar program to reduce the number of people without insurance to about 3% of the population, the lowest rate in the country. Three Massachusetts officials briefed Maryland lawmakers about the program this week.

    The Senate Finance Committee approved the Feldman/Peña-Melnyk bill unanimously. It’s expected to reach the Senate floor this week.

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    Bruce DePuyt
    Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.