Friday, May 23, 2008

O’Malley signs slate of health care bills

‘Alcopops’ bill becomes law without signature; Prince George’s hospital authority established

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ANNAPOLIS — Health care for veterans, children and seniors and a bill that starts the clock on finding a buyer for the Prince George’s hospital system highlighted legislation signed into law by Gov. Martin O’Malley on Thursday.

O’Malley (D) signed legislation requiring the state to send application packets to low-income taxpayers whose dependents are eligible for the Maryland Medical Assistance Program or Maryland Children’s Health Program and to assist senior citizens who fall into the ‘‘doughnut hole” gap in Medicare where they are forced to pay the full cost of prescription drugs.

He also signed a bill to address the behavioral health of military veterans. It provides them with crisis intervention and other services.

Thursday’s bill signing, the last for legislation passed during the 2008 General Assembly, was also notable for what was not signed.

O’Malley (D) allowed two bills to pass into law without his signature, including one that classifies ‘‘alcopops” as beer. The law means that fruit-flavored malt beverages, such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade, will continue to be subjected to the 9-cents-per-gallon tax on beer instead of the $1.50-per-gallon rate on distilled spirits.

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) issued an opinion saying the drinks should be taxed as spirits and sold only in liquor stores. They have been sold for four decades under the same tax structure as beer.

Critics said the legislation would make the beverages more readily accessible to underage drinkers.

O’Malley rejected the argument.

‘‘This bill did not do anything to make it easier,” he said. ‘‘It simply codified what had been a 40-year practice.”

O’Malley signed a bill on Thursday that increases the maximum penalty for furnishing or allowing underage consumption or possession of alcohol from $1,000 to $2,500 for a first offense and from $1,500 to $5,000 for a subsequent violation.

He said he ‘‘went back and forth on [the alcopops bill] for about two weeks” but ultimately decided that he would let the legislation stand and push in 2009 to reclassify the beverages as a new classification of alcohol.

‘‘The reason I did not sign it is I did not want to signal that this issue is over,” he said.

O’Malley also allowed an Anne Arundel County bill to become law without his signature. The law requires the county’s Board of Health to set well-driller permit fees that reflect the cost to the health board to inspect wells, collect water samples and issue certificates of potability.

The governor’s sole veto was of another Anne Arundel County-specific bill that would have required the Department of the Environment to reimburse the county for the cost of environmental health monitoring and testing.

‘‘I don’t think there should be a policy that only applies to Anne Arundel County,” he said. ‘‘If we want to do that, we should do it statewide. And I hope that’s what we’ll do.”

O’Malley also signed legislation granting domestic partners hospital visitation rights and exempting them from paying property transfer taxes, a measure that requires employers who offer leave to provide paid time off to care for sick family members and a registration and fee requirement for tax preparers.

Opponents pushed O’Malley to veto the legislation.

The state took a step toward mapping out a future for the struggling Prince George’s County hospital system as O’Malley signed legislation establishing a seven-member authority charged with creating a proposal to sell the system in hopes of bringing a deal back to the legislature early next year.

The state and Prince George’s County will each pay $24 million over the next two years to keep the county-owned hospitals in Cheverly, Bowie and Laurel running.

O’Malley and County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) have 10 days from Thursday’s signing to name teams to negotiate how much the state and county each will commit to a funding plan for the sale and transfer of the system.

Iris B. Boswell, the county’s deputy chief administrative officer for the Office of Finance, will negotiate terms for the county’s portion of bids for the project, Dean said.

The state and county have 30 days to name three members each to the hospital authority. O’Malley will name the panel’s chair. A seventh member will be named by the Speaker of the House and Senate president.

The authority will have 60 days from its establishment to come to a funding agreement. There is an option for a 30-day extension if an agreement has not been reached.

Prince George’s lawmakers are cautiously optimistic.

‘‘I think both the county and the state are committed to making sure we have a hospital that can meet the needs of the county and the region,” said Sen. David C. Harrington (D-Dist. 47) of Cheverly.

The hospital system serves more than 180,000 patients a year. About 25 percent of patients are uninsured, creating about $12 million in annual losses.

Many details need to be worked out by the authority, state and county officials said.

Among the financial issues, state Health Secretary John M. Colmers said, are covering any outstanding liabilities owed by system operator Dimensions Health Care, paying for capital or operating needs during the transition to a new owner and providing long-term capital funding.

‘‘These are not simple tasks,” Johnson said. ‘‘It’s not picking a number and splitting it in two.”

Prince George’s County Council Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Dist. 5) of Mitchellville said Prince George’s has already provided the $12 million in maintenance funds for the hospital called for by the bill in the county’s fiscal 2009 budget.

‘‘[Our share] is going to be what the authority recommends,” Dean said.

But county budget constraints may prevent the two governments from striking a deal, others warn.

‘‘The county does not have the money at the moment,” said Sen. Nathaniel Exum, whose daughter is Councilwoman Camille Exum (D-Dist. 7) of Capitol Heights. ‘‘That’s why I have reservations on whether that’s going to come true.”

Staff Writer Daniel Valentine contributed to this report.