Annapolis: Generic Drug Price Gouging could be Penalized In Bill Sent to Hogan

A prohibition on generic drug price gouging now heads to Gov. Larry Hogan’s desk for signature after the House concurred in Senate amendments Monday morning.

The House voted 137-2 for the bill, HB631, and the Senate approved it on Friday 38-7 with a handful of Republicans joining the Democratic majority. All but a few GOP delegates supported the measure.

The legislation would be the first of its kind in the country to hold drug makers accountable for drastic spikes in prices that can’t be justified. Under the new law, the state Medicaid program will notify the attorney general of a spike in drug prices, who can seek civil penalties of up to $10,000 per violation.

“Generic prescription drugs prices have been like the ‘wild’ west for many Americans” said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, moments before Friday’s vote. “There’s a new sheriff in town and his name is Attorney General Brian Frosh, who will protect Marylanders from price gouging, and this will also allow future AG’s to protect Marylanders.”

“Frosh will be able to take legal action to stop unconscionable price increases that hurt people without justification when there’s no competition in the market,” DeMarco said.

Subjective judgment

In floor debate Friday, Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, said the proper way to deal with price controls would be to set up a commission rather than allow the attorney general to make a “subjective” determination on what constitutes price gouging.

“If the state of Maryland wants to establish their own version of the FDA and engage in price controls we ought to do in the proper manner,” Cassilly said. “The proper manner would be set up some proper board or commission…or have it come under some aspect of our state bureaucracy.”

Senate Republican Whip Sen. Stephen Hershey. R-Queen Anne’s, said the law could actually harm competition.

“Generic drugs are one of the only indicators in the delivery of health care where prices are actually going down,” Hershey said prior to passage of the bill. “This bill is going to have a negative effect that could potentially eliminate some of the competition that is in Maryland and that is driving these costs down.”

The legislation was rolled out at a Jan. 10 rally in Annapolis three weeks after Maryland joined 19 other states in a lawsuit against six generic drug makers for market manipulation and anti-competitive behavior.

Frosh said a 2014 survey of pharmacists revealed that 25 “off patent” generic drugs saw price increases of 600% to 2000%.

He said normally prices “plummet” when patents expire and competition becomes “robust.” He said generic drugs have consistently run about 20% of the original patented price.

“What we allege is these companies conspired to fix prices.” Frosh said at the rally.

by Dan Menefee

Annapolis: Paid Sick Leave Bill Sent to Hogan, Who has Pledged a Veto

Five years in the making, the Maryland General Assembly on Wednesday passed a widely supported but controversial paid sick leave bill, HB1, which Gov. Larry Hogan has vowed to veto.

Democratic lawmakers are promising an override at the start of the 2018 session, saying they will defend the rights of 700,000 Marylanders to take paid sick leave without fear of losing their jobs.

As the votes went up on the tally board , the bill’s lead sponsor, Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore City Democrat, lauded the efforts of fellow delegates and called on Gov. Hogan to sign the bill. A broad coalition of unions and progressive groups supported the bill.

“This has been five years… a lot of people have worked very hard to come to the day when nearly 700,000 Marylanders will be able determine they can take the day off to get better as opposed to losing their jobs…I certainly call on this governor to sign this bill when it comes to his desk.”

Veto-proof majorities

The bill cleared the House of Delegates by a veto proof majority, 87-53, concurring with Senate amendments and avoiding the need for a conference committee so close to the end of session – which Clippinger wanted to avoid. There were no votes to spare in case of a veto when the Senate passed the measure 29-18 Monday.

With the 90-day session over next Monday, the legislature cannot send it to Hogan for action, as it did with 27 other bills last week.

If successfully overridden in 2018, the sick leave bill requires companies with 15 or more workers to offer 40 hours of annual paid sick leave. Part-time employees working only twelve hours a week would accrue paid sick leave under the mandate.

The bill originally had offered seven sick days. Any business that currently offers five days of flexible paid leave, whether vacation or sick, complies with the bill.

A job killer, business groups say

The bill saw strong opposition from business interests during the session as a “job killer” and a “debilitating mandate” on small businesses struggling to stay afloat.

Mike O’Halloran, Maryland’s director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the Democratic majority had failed to consider bipartisan input.

“If implemented this bill would cost thousands of jobs, a majority of which would disappear from small businesses,” O’Halloran said soon after the House vote. “[More] than a dozen reasonable and responsible amendments were offered to lawmakers to help Maryland small businesses mitigate the impact of this mandate. Unfortunately, although these changes were supported in a bipartisan manner, the legislature chose not to listen to the pleas from Maryland’s job creators.”

Clippinger’s bill overshadowed a competing bill offered by Hogan at the beginning of the session that would require companies with 50 or more employees to provide 40 hours of annual paid sick leave, as most already do.

Hogan’s plan also budgeted $60 million in tax incentives for smaller companies with 50 or less employees that offered paid leave.

But even support among Republicans was tepid at the start of the session because of mandates on businesses.

Three Democrats opposed

While passage was mostly along party lines, several Democrats voted against the bill because of the impact on small businesses.

“I was concerned this bill was going to hurt the businesses in my district,” said Del. Ned Carey, D-Anne Arundel. “I heard from many that they may have to close their doors or lay people off to get below 15 employees…this could mean the loss of jobs.”

“Many of the businesses in my district are just scraping by and there are times business owners go without a paycheck,” Carey said.

“I don’t have a lot of big businesses in my district, most are mom and pop businesses that can’t afford to offer paid sick leave,” Carey said in interview. “Businesses with 15 or 16 employees will be forced to rethink their staff levels and consider letting some people go.”

Eric Bromwell, D-Baltimore County, grew up in the restaurant businesses working alongside his brothers and mother at The Bromwell Inn in Overlea. He said the family originally lived above the restaurant and “put everything they made back into it.”

“Small business is a part of who I am and how I grew up,” he said. He said his mother very much wanted to offer paid sick leave and health insurance but could never afford it. “It’s a very delicate balance between helping the employees or hurting the business.”

He said this was especially true for family owned restaurants, which would have trouble staffing shifts during the holidays.

“If you have people who’ve accrued sick leave throughout the year it will become a lot harder than it already is to cover shifts during the holidays,” he said.

Del. C.T. Wilson, D-Charles, also voted against the bill, as did four Senate Democrats. Sen. Ed DeGrange, Anne Arundel and three from Baltimore County, Jim Brochin, Kathy Klausmeier and Bobby Zirkin.

Some businesses support it

Not all small businesses opposed the bill.

Clifton Broumand, founder and CEO of Man & Machine, a company that produces waterproof computer keyboards, said the talk of onerous regulations was “a side issue.”

As a small business job creator, he said his biggest asset was his employees.

“If my employees can’t take care of themselves, they can’t be efficient for me,” he said in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee on Feb. 10.

“The main issue here is providing paid sick leave,” he said. “There can be a way, and all of you have the opportunity to figure out a way that everyone can have paid sick leave in Maryland.”

Broumand said he provides 15 days of leave annually for his employees, and the week off between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

He said passage of the bill would level the playing field.

“The concept of a level playing field is an honorable thing for everybody,” he said. “If I’m doing this, everyone else should have to.”

by Dan Menefee

Annapolis: Maryland Could Expand Options to Treat Addiction Remotely

A bill that could expand telemedicine to include counseling for substance abuse disorders, which could help thwart the ballooning heroin-opioid epidemic in the state, is advancing in the Maryland General Assembly.

Telemedicine, or the use of virtual tools like video chats to provide health care services, has grown rapidly in recent years. In 2015, about 15 million Americans used telemedicine, a 50 percent increase from 2013, according to the American Telemedicine Association.

Although some health insurance providers do offer telemedicine for the treatment of substance abuse disorder, the bill, sponsored by Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk, D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s, would ensure that this would include counseling for addiction treatment.

“Counseling is a critical component of the recovery process, and works hand in hand with medication-assisted treatment,” wrote the Community Behavioral Health Association of Maryland in testimony in support of the bill. “This bill would help ensure the most efficient use of clinicians who are paneled with commercial (health insurance) carriers by allowing them to deliver counseling services through telehealth.”

There has been a growing push for the the adoption of telemedicine for the treatment of substance abuse disorders, said Yngvild Olsen, the director of a Baltimore outpatient substance use disorder treatment program.

However, some Medicaid regulations have hindered reimbursement of telemedicine for substance-abuse counseling services, Olsen said, adding that if regulations are clarified, Maryland could begin seeing a more widespread adoption of the treatment method.

“This is something that there is a significant amount of interest in because of the lack of behavioral health counseling and other behavioral health services in many areas of the state,” Olsen told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.

Opioid-related deaths in Maryland have doubled from 529 in 2011 to 1,089 in 2015, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Pockets in the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland have had trouble attracting enough health care providers to treat the problem there, Olsen said.

Moreover, the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration has designated parts of Baltimore City and all of Harford County as areas where there is a shortage of health professionals, specifically for mental health.

Although other states have begun adopting a more widespread use of telemedicine for opioid-heroin substance abuse treatment, Maryland has only a few pockets where these services are available, Olsen said.

The first telemedicine program to treat addiction in Maryland started with a partnership between the University of Maryland Medical Center and the Wells House, a Hagerstown, Maryland, drug treatment program.

After one of the Wells House’s doctors retired, the staff were looking for a solution to keep up with the “ever-increasing” demand, said Paul Smith, the telemedicine program coordinator.

So they enlisted the help of University of Maryland Medical Center doctors who remotely meet with patients and prescribe them medication to treat their addictions by video chatting through their television screens, Smith said.

“It’s so versatile,” Smith said. “They can literally plug in here in a matter of seconds.”

Wells House prescribes medication for about 30 to 35 patients per week using this technology on average, Smith said. Since the program’s launch in 2015, the University of Maryland Medical Center has expanded its partnerships to include the Garrett County Health Department to offer similar services there, he added.

Recent studies have shown that telemedicine can be an effective way to treat substance-abuse disorders.

West Virginia University physicians recently conducted a study to determine whether telemedicine could provide similar outcomes as in-person treatment for patients in medication-assisted treatment programs.

Doctors remotely met with 46 patients in 30-minute group sessions to prescribe them buprenorphine, an opioid medication, by videoconferencing, and met with 54 patients face-to-face. Both groups followed these sessions with an in-person hour-long therapy group.

In the telemedicine group, 49 percent achieved 90 consecutive days of abstinence, compared with 37 percent in the in-person group.

Wanhong Zheng, a doctor who worked on the project, said expanding programs like these could be especially helpful for those with substance abuse disorders living in rural areas, where some patients have to drive up to five hours once a week just to go to a clinic.

This lack of treatment availability, one of the many challenges those hoping to treat an opioid addiction face, can be overcome by expanding telemedicine programs, Zheng said.

Maryland’s House of Delegates passed the bill and the state Senate is planning to hold a hearing on it April 4.

By Natalie Schwartz

Maryland Democrats Redistricting Reform Hinges on Five other States

Democrats in the Maryland legislature are advancing a bill that would create an independent commission to redraw the state’s congressional districts, but only if five other mid-Atlantic states implement similar reforms by the end of 2032. 
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan proposed reforms that, if passed in a referendum, would take away lawmakers’ power to create districts. 
 
Redistricting and its ugly cousin, gerrymandering, are emerging as major nationwide issues, and reform efforts have the potential to fundamentally reorder politics in several state governments as well as the U.S. House of Representatives.  
 
The Democrats’ plan creates an independent commission to draw legislative districts if five other states — New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina — do the same by 2032. They would all have to pass reforms by the end of 2020 for the bill to affect the next redistricting process, which will be based on the results of the 2020 census.
 
Hogan’s plan would have added a referendum on a constitutional amendment to the next general election ballot. If passed by voters, the amendment would have stripped the General Assembly of its power to draw congressional districts and replaced the process with an independent commission. Democrats defeated the governor’s plan in committee. 
 
One of the major obstacles to independent redistricting, in Maryland and elsewhere, is the fear that leveling the playing field at the state level will put one national party at a disadvantage against still-gerrymandered states where the opposition party is in control. 
 
The five states mentioned in the Democrats’ bill and Maryland currently send a total of 45 Republicans and 44 Democrats to the U.S. House of Representatives. 
 
State Sen. Craig Zucker, D-Montgomery, the lead sponsor of the Democrats’ bill, acknowledged that this nearly even split makes it less likely that reform will give either party an immediate advantage at the national level. The dominant party in those states would surrender the advantage that partisan redistricting gives them in exchange for neutralizing that advantage in another state where their party is in the minority.
 
Todd Eberly, an associate professor of political science and public policy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service that regional compacts, such as the one proposed by Democrats, are unlikely to succeed. 
 
Outside of a Supreme Court ruling that finds gerrymandering unconstitutional, Eberly said, the most likely source of national redistricting reform might be Republicans in Congress. If Republicans lose state legislatures and governorships in the 2018 and 2020 elections, the last elections before the next census, they may lose control of redistricting in the affected states. 
 
If the losses are big enough, Eberly suggested, Congressional Republicans might be motivated to reform redistricting to prevent Democrats from solidifying their victories through gerrymandering.
 
The Supreme Court has acknowledged in principle that partisan gerrymandering could be so extreme in certain cases that it might violate the equal representation clause of the Constitution. The problem is that the Court has yet to find a reliable test to determine how much gerrymandering is too much. 
 
In 2016, Wisconsin’s state assembly maps were ruled unconstitutionally gerrymandered by a federal district court. The case relies on the results of the 2012 and 2014 elections, where Democrats won the majority of the statewide general assembly vote, but Republicans still won 60 of the 99 seats in the assembly. That case has been appealed and is scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court in 2017. 
 
Widespread redistricting reform, whether through interstate compacts like the one proposed in Maryland or a ruling from the Supreme Court, has the potential to massively reshape American politics. 
 
Excluding vacancies, Democrats currently hold about 45 percent of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, against the 55 percent held by Republicans. Though difficult to quantify, some of the Republican lead is likely due to the party’s superior strength at the state level, which has allowed it to create favorable congressional district maps in more states, containing more total representatives, than the Democratic Party. 
 
In recent decades, Democrats and Republicans have fallen into a reliable cycle of power. With a unified Republican government in Washington, the question is not whether Democrats will take back control, but when. A sudden shift to non-partisan redistricting would likely narrow the gap between Democrats and Republicans in the House, potentially hastening the return to Democratic power. 
 
That is likely one of the reasons why Barack Obama has reportedly decided to pursue redistricting reform as part of his post-presidency agenda. As president, Obama presided over historic losses for his party at the state level and in Congress. Independent redistricting might offer something of a moon-shot to recover from those losses far faster than the usual cycle of political power would allow. 
By Jacob Taylor

Annapolis: Senate Democrats Push Bills in Time to Override Hogan Vetoes

Democrats in the Maryland Senate on Tuesday passed several pieces of legislation that are largely opposed by Gov. Larry Hogan, most notably a bill that would regulate the parameters for school evaluations and another that would require the state to fund Planned Parenthood should federal funding for that program be lost.

In addition to the Democrats’ package of legislation, both the House and Senate passed the state’s operating budget for the 2018 fiscal year on Tuesday.

The fiscal legislation passed after Hogan, a Republican, agreed to include $23 million for Baltimore City Public Schools in a supplemental budget. The funding for public schools had been a point of conflict in the budget negotiations.

This year’s budget process reportedly went significantly smoother than it did in the past two legislative sessions. The final budget checks in at $43.5 billion and leaves $144 million unappropriated to deposit into the state’s rainy day fund.

House Appropriations Committee Chair Delegate Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, said, “I really felt this year for the first time that (Hogan’s) staff worked a lot (and) were more hands on in terms of working with the budget committees; that makes it a lot easier.”

The Senate on Tuesday also took up legislation that the governor has signalled he is likely to veto. With the end of the session approaching, Democrats, who hold a supermajority in both chambers of the Maryland Legislature, needed to pass the bills soon to ensure enough time to override any vetoes during this session.

On Tuesday, Democrats passed the school-evaluation bill; the Planned Parenthood contingency funding; and a bill to preserve sanctuary oyster beds until December 2018. All three pieces of legislation passed largely on party lines.

Another significant piece of legislation, a resolution that would authorize the state’s attorney general to pursue cases against the federal government on a wide range of issues, was delayed to Wednesday. The resolution is widely seen as an effort to challenge policies coming out of the Trump Administration.

With control of Congress and the White House, Republicans have their best chance in years of cutting off federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Maryland Democrats in the Senate passed a House bill Tuesday that would require the state make up the potential federal funding loss.

The Defund Planned Parenthood Act of 2017 proposed in Congress, aims to remove to Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc.’s access to federal funds for one year.

Hogan’s current budget includes $9.9 million for the Title X Family Planning Program, according to a Department of Legislative Services fiscal analysis. The designated funds include $6 million in general funds, which satisfies the federal maintenance of effort requirement, and $3.9 million in anticipated federal funds, according to the analysis.

The bill would require the state to make up the $3.9 million lost from federal funding to its best ability, taking into consideration the limitations of the budget, according to the analysis.

The Title X Family Planning Program serves approximately 71,000 Maryland women at more than 75 clinical sites, according to the department’s analysis.

Sen. Gail Bates, R-Carroll and Howard, urged for transparency in the bill with an amendment to require the company to provide a report that breaks down the types of services that are provided. She argued that the report might even provide “comfort” if it confirms that abortions are a minimal percentage of the services Planned Parenthood provides. The proposed amendment failed.

Sen. Richard Madaleno, D-Montgomery, said this information can be found in a Medicaid report. Madaleno also made a point to specify that this bill does not fund abortions, but gives funds to allow Planned Parenthood to continue providing other women’s health services.

Another measure, the Protect Our Schools Act of 2017, would set standards for the plan to improve student outcomes that the state submits to the U.S. Department of Education. The sticking point for lawmakers is that the bill may not sufficiently weigh academic achievement when assessing schools, in which case the state could lose nearly $250 million in federal funding. Furthermore, the bill restricts the state’s ability to intervene in failing schools, which opponents worry is intended to limit the creation of charter schools and voucher systems.

The bill specifies which measures could be considered when determining a school’s quality, prohibiting student testing from being one of them.

Republicans opposed the bill largely on the grounds that it undermines school choice and makes it more difficult for students in struggling schools to get an effective education.

Several Republicans expressed concern that the bill would prevent the state from improving struggling schools for several years. Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore and Harford, attempted a filibuster, but the Democratic majority limited debate after about 15 minutes.

Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, defended the bill, saying emphatically that it “does not remove charter schools” and that it only prevents the state board of education from approving charter schools without local input. However, he also said that part of the motivation for the bill is a concern that some leaders in the state department of education want to privatize schools, introduce vouchers, and “destroy our public school system.”

The state’s Department of Education could not be immediately reached for comment.

Sen. Steven Hershey, R- Caroline, Cecil, Kent & Queen Anne’s, described the bill as part of a “battle between the school board and the teachers’ union” and said he was “not convinced that this entire body knows what it’s doing.” He proposed an amendment that would have delayed the effects of the bill until five other specific states with highly ranked education systems come forward with similar plans; the amendment was rejected.

Madaleno insisted “we are not rushing this bill,” that “this is not a partisan issue, this is not about who is president or who is governor,” and that “this is our one chance to in fact be a national leader to set up the most comprehensive set of standards to determine how schools succeed and how they don’t.”

Baltimore City schools were repeatedly cited as examples of places where students would benefit from being able to move out of struggling public schools and into charter schools or, through a voucher, pay down the cost of a private school.

Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, D-Baltimore, defended the Baltimore public school system, saying that “they may not have succeeded to the extent that some would like to see but our efforts are strong.”

In a statement, Hogan said he believes “very strongly that every child in Maryland deserves a great education, regardless of what neighborhood they happen to grow up in” and that “this legislation would make that nearly impossible.” The governor has said he will veto the bill.

By Jacob Taylor and Cara Newcomer

–Capital News Service correspondent Jake Brodsky contributed to this report.

Annapolis: General Assembly Leaders push for Plan to Increase Diversity in Medical Marijuana Licenses

The president of the Maryland Senate is sponsoring a bill to increase diversity in medical marijuana grower licenses after a spate of other legislation addressing the issue has failed to gain traction in the Maryland General Assembly.

The bill, sponsored by Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, Charles and Calvert, would grant up to five more growing licenses and increase the likelihood they would go to minority-owned businesses. The Natalie M. LaPrade Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission would partner with historically black colleges and universities and conduct outreach targeted toward minorities and women, under Miller’s bill.

Maryland has had one of slowest rollouts of medical marijuana in the country. The commission, which grants licenses to growers, processors and dispensaries, has been hampered by legal battles and subsequent legislation since Maryland legalized medical cannabis in 2014.

To squash pending lawsuits, the five new licenses would include two businesses that are currently suing the commission.

After complaints surfaced that the commission didn’t fairly include representation in areas of southeastern Maryland, the commission revised their original unanimous decision on the 15 companies slated to receive growing licenses by bumping two higher-scoring applicants, GTI and Maryland Cultivation and Processing LLC, and replacing them with two lower-scoring applicants from the underrepresented areas.

Representatives from GTI confirmed that they would withdraw their suit against the commission if they can acquire a license under this new legislation.

Moreover, the Legislative Black Caucus earlier this year called for an overhaul of the commission after expressing outrage when none of the 15 pre-approved growing companies for licenses was owned by African Americans.

While the bill does not prohibit current members of the commission from being reappointed, it does shrink the commission from 16 to nine members, said Victoria Gruber, Miller’s chief of staff. The bill also includes language to create a more “diverse board” to better reflect the racial, gender and ethnic makeup of Maryland, she added.

While previous bills to increase the diversity have included a preference for minority-owned business, this may violate the U.S. Constitution, Cheryl A. Brown-Whitfield, principal counsel of the Maryland Department of Transportation, said earlier this session.

Maryland would need to conduct a study to evaluate whether discrimination does exist in the medical cannabis industry before it could take race-conscious measures in awarding licenses, Zenita Hurley, the Maryland attorney general’s director of legislative affairs and civil rights, told lawmakers earlier this session.

However, to speed the process the state may be able to hire an expert to review existing disparity studies, such as in the agriculture or pharmaceutical fields, to determine whether the state can move forward with a preference for minority-owned businesses in Maryland’s medical marijuana industry without a full-blown study, Gruber said.

The bill proposes to employ either a disparity study or an expert to determine whether there is a need for a minority-business preference before doling out the three remaining licenses, Gruber said.

It would also establish a fund to provide veterans and low-income patients with a way to pay for the drug. This would be provided through a 1 percent fee on growers and processors and 0.5 percent fee on dispensaries, Gruber said. The commission will be able to adjust these fees, she added.

The commission expected medical cannabis to be available to patients this summer, Vanessa Lyon, a spokeswoman for the group, said in late February.

– 30 –

Annapolis: School Scoring Bill sent to Hogan, who Promises Veto

Democrats in the Maryland General Assembly on Tuesday passed legislation establishing parameters for school evaluations that the state school board strongly opposes and Gov. Larry Hogan has promised to veto.

The House went along with Senate amendments, and sent the bill to Hogan, who called it “an utter disgrace.”

If the bill is delivered to Hogan’s office by Monday, he has six days to act on it, giving the legislature the chance to override a veto before it adjourns April 10. It is one of several bills Democratic leaders hope to send to Hogan in time to override promised vetoes.

The Protect Our Schools Act would set standards for a plan to improve student outcomes that the state must submit to the U.S. Department of Education under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The sticking point for Hogan and GOP lawmakers is that the bill does not sufficiently weigh academic achievement when assessing schools. In that case the state could lose nearly $250 million in federal funding, a legislative analyst suggested.

Advocates for the teachers union scoffed at the notion the Trump Department of Education would reject any state plan, since ESSA gives much wider latitude for the states to set policy than under No Child Left Behind, the federal law it replaced.

The bill also restricts the state Department of Education’s ability to intervene in failing schools, which opponents worry is intended to limit the creation of charter schools and voucher systems.

Academic indicators raised

The bill specifies which measures could be considered when determining a school’s quality and prohibits student testing from being one of them. As introduced, the academic indicators amounted to 55% of the total score for a school, but the Senate raised that to 65% Tuesday and the House accepted the amendment.

“Members of the legislature just voted to trap thousands of our kids in failing schools and jeopardize over a billion dollars in education funding over the next five years – all to protect the teachers unions and preserve the unacceptable status quo,” Hogan said in a press release. “It’s an utter disgrace and one of the most irresponsible moves our legislature has ever made.”

Republicans opposed the bill largely on the grounds that it undermines school choice and makes it more difficult for students in struggling schools to get an effective education.

Several Republicans expressed concern that the bill would prevent the state from improving struggling schools for several years. Senate GOP leader J.B. Jennings attempted a filibuster, but the Democratic majority limited debate after about 15 minutes.

Concern about charter schools and privatizing
Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, defended the bill, saying emphatically that it “does not remove charter schools” and that it only prevents the state board of education from approving charter schools without local input. However, he also said that part of the motivation for the bill is a concern that some leaders in the state department of education want to privatize schools, introduce vouchers, and “destroy our public school system.”

The State Board of Education, now dominated by Hogan appointees, held an emergency meeting last week to reinforce its earlier opposition to the legislation, which preempts its role in setting policies to implement ESSA that it has been working on for over a year.

Sen. Steven Hershey, R-Upper Shore, described the bill as part of a “battle between the school board and the teachers’ union” and said he was “not convinced that this entire body knows what it’s doing.”

He proposed an amendment that would have delayed the effects of the bill until five other specific states with highly ranked education systems come forward with similar plans; the amendment was rejected. This amendment was modeled on a Democratic redistricting reform measure that also required action by five states, which Republicans had derided as an excuse to do nothing about gerrymandering.

Sen. Rich Madaleno, D-Montgomery, insisted “this is not a partisan issue, this is not about who is president or who is governor.”

“This is our one chance to in fact be a national leader to set up the most comprehensive set of standards to determine how schools succeed and how they don’t,” Madaleno said.

Baltimore City schools were repeatedly cited as examples of places where students would benefit from being able to move out of struggling public schools and into charter schools or, through a voucher, pay down the cost of a private school.

Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, D-Baltimore, a former school administrator, defended the Baltimore public school system, saying that “they may not have succeeded to the extent that some would like to see but our efforts are strong.”

Reporting also done by the Capital News Service

Shore Progressives Prepare to Address Health Care, Other Issues At Harris Town Hall

Members of Eastern Shore progressive organizations, along with thousands of non-partisan progressive citizens groups formed to oppose the Trump agenda, are relieved that the Affordable Care Act has so far survived Republican attempts to repeal it.

“The persistent and strong national grassroots activism of these groups played a major role in the ultimate failure of the Republicans to bring a replacement bill up for a vote,” said Emily Jackson, co-leader of Together We Will – Delmarva.

Acknowledging that the ACA can be improved, many members of Talbot Rising are proponents of a single-payer system. “If 35 of the world’s developed nations can provide healthcare to all their citizens as a right, not a privilege based on income, we can do it here too,” said Denice Lombard, a member of Talbot Rising and the Talbot County Democratic Women’s Club. “A single-payer system fixes all the problems of healthcare we face. It’s high quality, affordable and accessible.”

Lombard dismissed the notion that individuals and states should pick and choose what kind of healthcare they need. “All of our bodies need healthcare at different times in our lives,” she said. “None of us has a crystal ball to see what our health care needs will be, and all of these arguments twist our society into a giant pretzel that ultimately protects the rights of for-profit insurance companies over people.”

Although many constituents had planned to press 1st District Rep. Andy Harris on the Republican healthcare bill at his town hall, scheduled for Friday, March 31, at 6 p.m. at Chesapeake College’s Todd Performing Arts Center, turnout is expected to be strong even though GOP leadership failed to muster enough votes to pass the bill last week.

“We have plenty of other issues to discuss with our congressman,” said Talbot Rising founder Michael Pullen. “We want Andy Harris to represent our interests, but when he co-sponsors a bill to undermine public education, one to withhold federal funds from communities that want to protect immigrants from deportation and provide sanctuary for them, and when he comes out in support of destroying the EPA, people can’t just stand by and let that happen without a fight,” said Pullen. “While Trump proposes to add $54 billion of our tax dollars to the defense budget while taking money away from the needs of the American people and the environment, we have no choice but to protest.”

Dorotheann S. Sadusky, president of the Democratic Club of Queen Anne’s County also weighed in. “As a member of the Labor, Health & Human Services Committee, Congressman Harris must tell us if he intends to support Trump’s budget that calls for elimination of such agencies as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Inter-American Foundation and the Chemical Safety Board to name a few.”

Harris set aside only one hour for the town hall in a venue that holds 1,000 people. Several regional progressive organizations have requested that Harris extend the length of the meeting and have vowed to continue the town hall outside with or without the congressman. “We will be heard one way or the other, rain or shine,” said Debbie Krueger, co-leader, of Together We Will – Delmarva.

Annapolis: Senate gives Final Approval to Fracking Ban

Maryland’s Senate gave final approval Monday night to a permanent ban on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, making the state the second in the nation with known gas reserves to ban the practice.

By a vote of 35 to 10, the Senate sent the bill banning “fracking,” as it’s commonly called, to Gov. Larry Hogan, who recently indicated he supports it. The House earlier had given its overwhelming approval to the same measure.

The bill’s passage makes Maryland the second state in the nation with proven natural gas reserves to ban fracking. New York banned it by executive order; Vermont has banned it by legislation, but lacks known gas reserves.

The vote all but ends a six-year debate about whether to permit fracking in western Maryland, which sits atop a gas-rich Marcellus Shale deposit that stretches from New York into North Carolina.

Though the gas industry has touted the process as safer than other extraction methods, fracking has led to drinking water contamination, hazardous spills, and forest fragmentation in nearby states that have allowed it, such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia. In Maryland, only the mountainous western counties of Allegany and Garrett contain the shale reserves; residents there were split over whether to allow the practice, though area politicians wanted it.

Environmentalists, purveyors of tourism, and many rural residents hailed the vote.
“All of Maryland has united to protect its residents and future residents from the harmful impacts of fracking,” anti-fracking activists Jackie and Dale Sams of Allegany County said in a statement.

Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, called it “a win for Marylanders and for citizens nationwide as we move away from violent fossil fuels and toward sustainable wind and solar power.”

But Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, called the General Assembly’s action “misguided” and asserted that it hurts the state’s economy and its environment.

“Maryland depends year-round on natural gas that is safely produced in neighboring states,” Cobbs said, noting that the nation’s increased use of natural gas has helped reduce climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions to a 25-year low.

Fracking involves drilling horizontally deep underground, then injecting liquid at high pressure into rocks to force fissures and extract oil or gas. There has been a moratorium in effect the past two years, which is scheduled to expire Oct. 1.

Proponents argued that extracting the gas in Marcellus Shale deposits could bring jobs and boost the economically depressed region. But critics have pointed to problems with fracking in neighboring states, including spills and contaminated wells, and to studies finding health risks associated with the practice. Others have warned a drilling boom could kill western Maryland’s growing tourism and outdoor recreation businesses, among them some of the best trout fishing in the region, the Wisp ski resort, and Deep Creek Lake.

The energy industry, which once leased rights to drill over much of Garrett County, had at one time been pressing to drill in Western Maryland. But a bonanza of wells drilled elsewhere in the country has yielded a glut in natural gas, driving down prices and profits, reducing incentives for the industry to prospect for new reserves. Most of the leases signed years ago have been allowed to lapse, which led proponents and opponents alike to acknowledge there likely wouldn’t be a rush to drill in Maryland even if permitted.

After several years of debate and study, Maryland lawmakers imposed a temporary moratorium in 2015 to give state regulators time to draw up regulatory safeguards for the practice. Last year, the Department of the Environment proposed what Hogan contended are the toughest fracking regulations of any state in the country, which he argued would have made it “virtually impossible” for any drilling to be permitted.

But a joint House-Senate committee found the rules not stringent enough, and put a hold on them. Though that hold was only temporary, and the administration could have pressed ahead with the regulations, Hogan made a surprise about-face in mid-March, announcing that he would endorse a permanent fracking ban. He cited the legislature’s failure to act on the administration’s rules as a factor in his decision.

While the debate focused on fracking’s impact on Western Maryland, it became a statewide issue, in part because of the spreading impact of the gas drilling boom in neighboring states. Dominion, the Richmond-based energy company, is in the process of developing a plant to liquefy natural gas at Cove Point and export it to Asia from a terminal off Calvert County in the Chesapeake Bay. That project also sparked fierce debate as well as lawsuits, though state and federal officials ultimately approved it.

Timothy B. Wheeler is managing editor and project writer for the Bay Journal. He has more than two decades of experience covering the environment for The Baltimore Sun and other media outlets.

Annapolis: Legislature Braces for ACA Repeal despite Congress’s Failure

The Maryland House of Delegates on Friday adopted its version and a Senate version of the Maryland Health Insurance Coverage Protection Act to plan for the potential loss of $4 billion in annual Medicare and Medicaid dollars that flow to the state annually, should the Republican-controlled Congress succeed in repealing the Affordable Care Act.

The loss of funding could result in 400,000 Marylanders losing their health coverage, according to analysis from the Maryland Department of Legislative Services released in January to assess the impact of repeal.

But during floor debate on Friday morning, Warren Miller, R-Howard, asked if the measure could be delayed pending the outcome of a scheduled 3:30 vote in Congress on the American Health Care Act, the GOP’s replacement to the ACA.

“There is a very good possibility there could be no repeal,” Miller.

Miller’s comments were correct and several hours later U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan announced there would be no vote and conceded that the AHCA failed to win the support of GOP majority.

“Obamacare is the law of the land and will remain the law of the land until it is replaced,” Ryan said at an afternoon press conference announcing his decision to cancel a vote on his plan. “We’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future…I don’t know how long it’s going to take to replace this law.”

Congressman Andy Harris, Maryland’s only Republican in Congress, originally lauded the Ryan plan as a way to reduce costs for patients while increasing the quality of health care, but by Friday Harris pulled his support.

Democratic leaders in Annapolis and Washington fear the GOP Congress will continue attempts at repeal before the end of Trump’s first term.

“Today, tens of millions of Americans can breathe a small sigh of relief as President Trump, Speaker Ryan, and House Republicans failed to eliminate their healthcare coverage—at least for now,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland’s 7th District in a statement.

Being prepared

Del. Bonnie Cullison, chair of the health insurance subcommittee, said regardless of what happened Friday the state should be prepared for potential changes. She said the state needed to brace for repeal or drastic changes that could result in loss of coverage or a spike in premiums and other costs.

“We need to be prepared and we’re going to have to look at some other ways to deliver [health care] services,” She said.

She said options may be limited to bringing back high-risk pools like the Maryland Health Insurance Plan (MHIP), a public health plan established by the legislature in 2002, the Health Insurance Safety Net Act, to cover individuals who could not get coverage due to pre-existing conditions or who were deemed uninsurable. The program established 41 medical conditions that automatically qualified individuals for enrollment.

Coverage under MHIP was supported by premiums, a 1% assessment of hospital rates and federal grant funds. The plan was phased out in January 2014 when coverage became available under the ACA. Those who could still not afford coverage qualified under the Medicaid expansion if their incomes were 133% of the poverty level or less.

“But we’re not looking favorably on any of our options right now,” Cullison said. ‘We’re going to have to look at some other ways of delivering the service.”

“There may be very high premiums but it would cover the people who absolutely need health care and don’t have it,” she said. She said it could be a stopgap against medical bankruptcy and would hopefully include a prohibition against lifetime limits on coverage.

“These are out there as options but we are not looking favorably on any of our options right now,” Cullison said.

Minor amendments were adopted on Friday to make the bills identical and final passage is expected next week. The Senate passed its version March 18 in a party-line vote, 33-14.

by Dan Menefee