The Montgomery County Council wants to preserve adequate health care for residents by requesting that Maryland's state insurance commissioner and the state legislature reject the proposed sale of Maryland's nonprofit CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield to a California for-profit HMO.

"The state of Maryland should 'just say no' to the sale of CareFirst," said council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring). "Nearly 7,000 Montgomery County families depend on CareFirst as an insurer of last resort to protect their health -- along with tens of thousands of other Marylanders. If this deal goes through, Montgomery County is going to end up picking up more of the tab for basic health care for the uninsured."

Council members were joined in their Rockville chambers by a broad array of organizations -- including health care providers and consumers who oppose the CareFirst bid.

"The purchase of CareFirst by WellPoint Health Networks of California will inevitably mean a reduction in quality health care services for working families," said council member George Leventhal (D-At Large), chairman of the council's Health and Human Services Committee.

State insurance commissioner Steven B. Larsen has completed his hearings on the sale by CareFirst and is scheduled to issue his decision Feb. 20.

"The facts are in -- the public interest is not served by allowing the sale of CareFirst to a giant California HMO," said council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large). "Our safety net for families in need of access to decent health care is thin and hard-pressed enough without making matters worse."

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan added: "People depend on a health insurance provider who will offer affordable, accessible, quality health coverage and, given what we currently know, CareFirst has not been able to demonstrate that this will happen with its sale to WellPoint."

Should Larsen decide to allow the sale to proceed, state legislators have introduced resolutions to block it.

"If necessary, we urge our Montgomery County state legislators to be ready to step up to the plate and stop this deal from happening," said council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large). "At a time when we ought to be moving toward assuring all Maryland families the health care they need, this sale would move us in the wrong direction."

Housing Program Approved The Montgomery County Council also gave final approval to legislation that would legalize the development of affordable homes in the county in projects with fewer than 35 units.

The measure, approved by a vote of 8 to 1, clarifies that developers can voluntarily set aside units as affordable housing in developments smaller than the 35 units that currently trigger the requirement for affordable units under the county's Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) program. This conforms with the existing practice of the Montgomery County Planning Board, which has granted approval to at least 16 small housing projects using this approach.

"This is a modest step in our multifaceted approach to promoting more affordable housing in the county," said council member Steven A. Silverman, author of the legislation. "Our affordable housing crisis means that we must pursue all available means to increase housing choices for the county's working families."

Developers would not be able to "buy out" of the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit law provisions by contributing to the county's Housing Initiative Fund once their development has been approved with affordable units.