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Md. governor, legislative leaders say they have a solution to soaring health-care premiums

A view of the Maryland State House in Annapolis
A view of the Maryland State House in Annapolis (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Maryland’s Democratic legislative leaders have reached agreement on a one-year plan to stabilize skyrocketing individual health insurance premiums by taxing insurance companies and using the money to pay the biggest claims.

Legislation that won initial approval in the state Senate on Friday would levy a surcharge of about $380 million on insurance companies that do business in Maryland, which are paying about that much less in federal taxes this year because of a one-time exemption provided by the recent overhaul of the U.S. tax code.

Using that money for a “reinsurance fund” will lower premiums for everyone in the individual insurance market, officials and advocates said, heading off a potential crisis stemming from anticipated increases in premiums of between 30 and 50 percent and the possible departure of CareFirst, Maryland’s only statewide insurer for the estimated 154,000 individuals who buy their own plans rather than get coverage through an employer or government program.

“The consequence of doing nothing, it will just explode the whole entire system,” said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), who sponsored the bill.

Hogan, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) have worked together on the issue. In March, the trio sent a letter asking Maryland’s congressional delegation to push Congress to stabilize the market.

“As the governor has made clear countless times, multiple federal administrations and Congress have failed on this issue, but the state of Maryland will not,” said Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse.

A second bill that won initial approval in the Senate late Friday and is part of the agreement forged with Hogan would require Maryland’s health exchange to apply for a federal waiver that would provide long-term funding for the reinsurance program, as several other states have done.

The bill would also require that a Maryland state panel — established last year in response to Republican efforts in Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act — examine whether to adopt a state-based individual health insurance mandate.

Vincent DeMarco, a member of the state health panel and president of the Maryland Citizens Health Initiative, called the initial approval of the bills a “really good step forward.”

“It was a brilliant idea to capture the federal money for a year,” he said.

But he added that he would like to see the General Assembly go further and pass legislation to create a health insurance down-payment program that would replace the repealed federal individual mandate, fine people who don’t have insurance and then use that money to help cover their health-care costs.

The pace of the 90-day legislative session picked up on Friday in advance of Monday’s “crossover,” the date when most bills need to have passed out of at least one chamber to have a solid chance of becoming law.

In the House, lawmakers gave initial approval to a bill that would strengthen the General Assembly’s anti-sexual harassment policy, a top priority of the Women Legislators of Maryland caucus amid increased discussion of sexual harassment in and around the State House.

The measure calls for an independent investigator to handle certain harassment complaints, including if the person filing the complaint requests it. It would also require lobbyists to receive sexual harassment training that already is mandated for lawmakers; require the Department of Legislative Services to publish the names of lawmakers who attend that training; and require the Joint Legislative Committee to update its anti-harassment policy every two years.

The bill — which was given little chance of passage earlier in the session, before several women spoke out about alleged harassment — advanced without any discussion.

Lawmakers also advanced bills that would raise the age for getting married. Under current law, 15-year-olds can marry if they receive parental consent or if a girl is pregnant. The Senate voted Friday to raise the age limit to 16, while the House voted Thursday evening to raise the limit to 17.

“I think you should not be able to get married until the age of majority,” said Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), the Senate bill’s sponsor. “It’s really outrageous.”

Zirkin said he hopes the House and Senate are able to reach a compromise on a new minimum age for marriage before the 90-day session ends April 9.

The Senate passed a bill that makes it easier to prosecute repeat sexual offenders by allowing evidence of past sexual offenses during trial, and gave preliminary approval to banning bump stocks and other rapid-trigger devices. The House gave final approval to a similar ban on Thursday.

A bill that would provide state financial aid to college students who are undocumented immigrants won initial approval in the Senate on Friday and final approval in the House on Thursday, expanding a 2012 bill that allowed students in the country illegally to receive in-state tuition.

The Senate also gave final approval Friday to a bill that reclassifies the Civil War-era song “Maryland, My Maryland” as a “historical” song, rather than the official state song.

The legislation is a compromise of sorts, after the General Assembly tried unsuccessfully for three years to completely repeal the song — which urges Maryland to join the Confederacy and bashes “Northern scum.”

Bill sponsor Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery) called the measure a way to acknowledge that a “dated, offensive, racist-themed song” needed to be put in the state’s past. “Sometimes symbolism is important,” Kagan said.

The Senate also gave initial approval to a bill that provides about $3 billion in tax incentives and inducements to lure to Montgomery County, one of 20 areas vying for the company’s second headquarters. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)