In the final week before bills passed in their chamber of origin are required to move to the opposite chamber, members of the Maryland House Health and Government Operations Committee (HGO) voted on several health measures, with still more to come. The committee voted on the following bills Wednesday night.
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One of the more contested bills was House Bill 609, which specifies the conditions for which a county health officer can be removed from office. Current statutes say health officers “serve at the pleasure of the local body that has authority over health policy and the state health secretary,” meaning they can be removed without certain cause. Earlier this month, two former health officers testified before the legislature, alleging that politicization within the Department of Health over the officers’ public health guidance led to their removal.
“This bill was not put in place for these particular health officers—it’s everywhere,” said Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D – Anne Arundel), who is co-sponsoring the bill. “All the health officers in the state have just felt an enormous amount of pressure dealing with COVID on top of this.”
The bill outlines conditions for which a health officer may be removed, such as immorality, insubordination, or incompetence. However, Del. Sid Saab (R – Anne Arundel) opposed the bill, calling it a “knee-jerk reaction” to the politicization dispute and raising concerns over the ambiguity of the bill language.
“The definition of immorality is very broad,” he said. “What’s moral to someone may not be moral to other people. It’s going to be almost impossible to remove the health officer.”
The bill ultimately passed along party line votes and heads to the House floor.
HB 6, sponsored by Del. Bonnie Cullison (D – Montgomery), would require the state Medicaid program to provide partial dental care for adults with an annual household income at or below 133% of the federal poverty line, effective Jan. 1, 2023. Current federal law requires mandatory dental services for children under Medicaid, but adult dental services remain optional.
The bill was initially drafted to provide comprehensive dental services, but was later amended to only include diagnostic, preventive, restorative, and periodontal services. A fiscal analysis found that the inclusion of adult dental services for eligible individuals would increase Medicaid spending by $82.3 million in FY 2023.
The bill passed the HGO committee and will move to the House floor. All present members voted favorably except for Saab and Del. Matthew Morgan (R – St. Mary’s).
Delegate Ariana Kelly (D – Montgomery) is sponsoring two bills that aim to address the ongoing health workforce crisis in the state. HB 652 would establish the Commission to Study the Health Care Workforce Crisis in Maryland. The commission would specifically study the current extent of the workforce shortage, the relations between the Maryland Department of Health and various health occupations boards, and short-term solutions to the workforce shortage. The commission would report its findings to the legislature by Dec. 31 each year.
Kelly’s other bill, HB 1208, focuses more specifically on the nursing shortage. This bill would create state income tax credits for registered nurses, nurse practitioners, and licensed practical nurses. It would also grant “externships” to allow nursing students who have not yet become board-certified to provide health services under appropriate supervision. Both bills passed the HGO committee unanimously and will move to the House floor.
“This bill is attempting to address all the low-hanging fruit we can in terms of barriers to getting certified nursing assistants and nurses working in the state of Maryland,” Kelly said of HB 1208 at the voting session.
Another bill on the agenda would require all insurance carriers except for managed care organizations to provide coverage for mental health or substance use disorder services provided by a nonparticipating provider at the same rate as a participating provider. HB 912 also requires the Maryland Health Care Commission to establish those reimbursement rates by Jan. 1, 2023. Carriers would also be required to inform consumers of their right to request a referral to a specialist or nonphysician specialist.
At the voting session, Cullison, who supports the bill, said it l would not only provide coverage for out-of-network services to the consumer, but would allow carriers to negotiate with more providers to get them into their network. Del. Teresa Reilly (R – Cecil) raised concerns from some carriers who thought the bill would actually discourage providers from joining their networks. In response, Cullison said based on similar policies in other states, more providers were willing to join carrier networks than not. The bill passed the committee unanimously.