POLITICS

Maryland lawmakers approve health exchange under federal overhaul

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Politics,Local,Maryland,Ben Giles

Opponents ask state to wait until Supreme Court ruling

ANNAPOLIS - Maryland lawmakers voted to move forward with plans to establish a federally mandated health insurance marketplace as the Supreme Court began hearing arguments on the fate of President Obama's sweeping overhaul of the country's health care system.

The Maryland Health Benefit Exchange Act passed the House 94-44 vote Monday afternoon and the Senate 35-12 later Monday evening. Officials now await the crossover approval of each bill before the legislation goes to Gov. Martin O'Malley's desk for his signature.

Also in Annapolis
• The House passed legislation to allow Marylanders to play fantasy sports for cash and other prizes. State law currently does not directly address fantasy sports, and interpretations of the current law could allow for residents to be punished for participating in the fantasy games.
• A House panel approved Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to develop an offshore wind farm outside Ocean City. While the bill faces tough votes on the House floor and in a Senate committee, the governor wants the measure to pass.

The exchange would be set up by Jan. 1, 2014, and would market and sell health care plans to uninsured Marylanders and small businesses that don't offer or provide insurance to employees.

Some Maryland delegates argued the state should wait for the Supreme Court decision before moving forward with legislation they said could cost the state millions of dollars to implement.

"We're plowing ahead on a bill that just started today having arguments on before the Supreme Court," said House Minority Leader Anthony O'Donnell, R-Calvert. "We have the time to be a little more reserved in this, and yet we're not."

O'Donnell urged lawmakers "to not commit Marylanders to a bill that we may not be able to pay."

A Supreme Court ruling is expected by late June.

Del. Shane Pendergrass, vice chairman of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, said that not acting now could cost the state even more in the long run.

If the Supreme Court does strike down Obama's health care proposal, "there's plenty of time to stop the process," said Pendergrass, D-Howard. "No state money will have been spent ... But if we don't keep going with this process, it'll be too late to ramp up and do the process right."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services so far has awarded Maryland $34.4 million to create the exchange, including a $6.2 million grant given only to six states that have taken early steps to abide by the federal mandate.

The exchange is currently being implemented without using any state dollars, according to Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

"Maryland's health benefit exchange is the most critical component of our efforts to reduce costs, expand access, and improve the quality of care for Maryland families, individuals and small businesses," Brown said. "The exchange will provide a transparent marketplace where individuals and small businesses can compare rates, benefits and quality among private insurance plans to find one that best suits their needs."

bgiles@washingtonexaminer.com

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