Less Bingo, More Health Coverage Start Today

Video bingo machines, such as these in Charlotte Hall, become illegal today.
Video bingo machines, such as these in Charlotte Hall, become illegal today. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Thousands of low-income parents will be eligible for health coverage under Medicaid starting today, and same-sex couples will have new rights, as 189 laws take effect in Maryland.

Also today, the hundreds of video bingo machines that have proliferated in St. Mary's County and other communities will become illegal. And, a new commission will conduct a wide-ranging study of the death penalty in an effort to settle an emotional debate among lawmakers over capital punishment, offering a recommendation to the General Assembly by the end of the year on whether to repeal or maintain the practice.

In addition, a tax on computer services, which was approved by the General Assembly last fall but which never took effect, will nevertheless be repealed today, having been replaced in part by a three-year surcharge on the income of millionaires and budget cuts.

Most of the new laws cleared the General Assembly during its annual 90-day session and were signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D). A few were passed during a special legislative session in November to address a budget deficit.

Under several new laws, same-sex couples will have the same rights as married spouses to make medical decisions for each other and will be exempt from recordation taxes and state and county transfer taxes when they transfer property to their partner or the partner's family member. Although they stop short of marriage equality or civil unions, the laws represent piecemeal victories for gay rights advocates nearly a year after Maryland's highest court upheld the state's ban on same-sex marriage.

Tighter regulations on development in the state's environmentally sensitive coastal areas, a leading environmental priority for O'Malley, also go into effect. The law enlarges buffer areas and increases water-quality protection.

The Medicaid expansion, approved during the special session, has been a top priority for House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and health-care advocates. The state-federal program for the poor will be expanded to about 100,000 people, chipping away at Maryland's growing population of uninsured.

The program starts today for parents who earn less than 116 percent of the federal poverty level, about $24,000 for a family of four. Childless adults will be eligible starting next year. In the fall, the state also will begin offering subsidies to small companies to encourage them to buy insurance policies for their workers.

Another expansion of health care that takes effect today is an increase in reimbursement rates for dentists who accept patients with Medicaid coverage. The law was prompted by the death last year of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old Prince George's County boy who died of complications from an infected tooth.

Less than a third of the state's children on Medicaid were seen by a dentist in 2005, and lawmakers set about to increase the number of dentists who would accept Medicaid. With the new rates, reimbursement for a common treatment to prevent tooth decay in children will jump to $33 from $9, according to the Maryland State Dental Association.

A more stringent car safety law took effect yesterday, requiring children to ride in safety seats until they turn 8, weigh 65 pounds or reach 4-foot-9.

Although less high-profile than the death penalty commission, other task forces will also be created by laws that take effect today. Some could eventually result in changes to policy. The effect of immigrants on Maryland's economy will be analyzed, as will strategies to preserve the languages of immigrants. Another commission will study whether more physical education should be required in public schools. And yet another will recommend whether "financial literacy" should be taught in the schools so that students learn early how to manage money.

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