a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Democratic District 20 candidates on Fair Share Health Care

Posted by Thomas Nephew on July 29th, 2006

As I mentioned on Tuesday, I asked Democratic District 20 candidates to comment on the recent RILA v. Fielder ruling overturning Maryland’s Fair Share Health Care law. The substantive part of my Monday e-mail was as follows:

Dear Democratic District 20 candidates,

As you probably know, a federal judge overturned Maryland’s Fair Share Health Care (FSHC) Act last week. (I posted an item about this decision as “RILA v. Fielder strikes down Fair Share Health Care.”) Colloquially if inaccurately referred to as the “Wal-Mart bill,” FSHC required companies with over 10,000 employees to pay an amount equal to at least 8% of payroll to health benefits, or pay the balance into a state Medicaid fund. As I understand the ruling, the judge found this to be incompatible with the federal Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), but not a violation of the principle of equal protection for Wal-Mart vs. other companies. The decision will be appealed, but the prospects for success are uncertain.

My question to all of you is:

Assuming the RILA v. Fielder decision stands, what specific legislative steps do you support — if any — to pass a FSHC or similar measure that would withstand judicial scrutiny? By “similar”, I mean measures that address the needs of low-income wage earners with inadequate health care benefits, and/or the “free rider” problem of companies like Wal-Mart which — despite being highly profitable — essentially rely on state Medicaid systems to provide health care for their employees.

I then discussed suggested word limits and formatting,* and asked for responses by this evening. Here are the Assembly and Senate candidate responses I received by this evening, in the order I received them.

Maryland District 20
— Assembly candidates —

Delegate Gareth Murray

As you are aware, I was a strong advocate and voted for the Fair Share Health Care bill and view it as another step toward providing the Maryland workforce the rights and benefits they so richly deserve. I wish this were a problem for which I could give you a quick answer. Unfortunately this is a very complex issue which I do intend on addressing upon my return to Annapolis. The task is to craft legislation that will promote certain behaviors in reference to provision of healthcare by prohibiting or at a minimum removing economic incentive to do otherwise. Given the time required to adequately research and draft such a proposal, I do not have the time during this campaign for re-election.

Lucinda Lessley

It is my understanding that the Wal Mart bill was struck down because it was found to be in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which essentially creates a federal statute to occupy the regulation of health and benefit plans in order to ensure that firms that employ people in multiple states can maintain a standard, nationwide package of benefits.

I supported the aim of the Wal Mart bill which was to require that Wal Mart either provide health insurance to its employees or pay the State to provide the benefits that many employees obtained through State programs. If it would be possible to craft a bill that meets these objectives without violating the provisions of ERISA, I would support it.

The better way to avoid the problems faced by the Wal Mart bill, however, and to ensure that all Marylanders have access to health care, is to create a system in our State that provides universal care or coverage. While such a system may be a single payer system or it may be a system such as was adopted in Massachusetts that requires all citizens to carry health insurance (and subsidizes coverage for those who cannot afford it), I believe it is shameful that some 700,000 Marylanders lack health insurance. A state with the resources that are available to Maryland can provide universal coverage if such coverage is made a top Statewide priority; if elected, I will work to make universal care this kind of priority.

Diane Nixon

I supported the Wal-Mart bill, and I am sorry that it was struck down. But I thought of it as a stepping stone, not a solution to the health care crisis in Maryland. Since it only applied to employers who have over 10,000 employees, few residents in Maryland would have been affected. I want legislation which will provide universal coverage to all residents, modeled after the bill which passed in Massachusetts this year. Uninsured residents who can afford to buy insurance must buy it or face tax penalties. Businesses with more than ten workers must provide insurance or they will be fined. People below the federal poverty level will be provided with health insurance, without paying premiums or deductibles. Lower income people will be able to buy subsidized policies. The Massachusetts plan reduces the cost of health insurance for people who are already insured. Having fewer people without insurance will lower costs for employers. Adding healthy people, who use less health care, will keep deductibles and premiums down. The cost of health care is too expensive and it getting worse. Massachusetts legislators have shown that providing health insurance to the uninsured is possible. Since this is a new plan, it will probably undergo several changes before it works for everyone. But it does what the Wal-Mart bill failed to do. It comes close to providing universal health care, it makes most businesses responsible for covering their employees, and it offers hope that the broken health care system can be fixed.

Aaron Klein

As a nation, the United States spends almost twice as much as every other industrialized country on health care and yet we have little to show for it – with higher infant mortality and lower life expectancy rates. Maryland’s teen pregnancy rate is greater than both Kentucky’s and Oklahoma’s. Our health care system is broken. We need comprehensive reform to address the fundamental problem—that more than 800,000 Marylanders lack health insurance. While I support interim efforts like the so-called “Walmart Bill,” which force companies to pay their fair share, the longer term solution lies in a fundamental shift away from the link between employment and health care and toward a universal system. The states of Massachusetts and Hawaii have made notable progress in that regard and Maryland ought to consider moving in that direction. Universal state-funded health care would also help our economy as rising health care costs have a devastating impact upon not only working families, but also small business owners. We need to focus our efforts on making health care affordable for everyone and on helping to promote small and local businesses, which means both providing health care to their employees and making sure that the large companies who try to avoid paying their fair share are held accountable.

Maryland District 20
— Senate candidates —

Jamie Raskin

Background: The federal district court in Maryland struck down the Fair Share Act (Wal-Mart bill) because the law was clearly preempted by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), which was designed to preempt state regulation of benefit plans.

Here are two possible solutions for Maryland:
1. Support a union organizing drive at Wal-Mart and other big companies to give the workers leverage to negotiate for better health benefits.
2. Pass a comprehensive, statewide universal health insurance plan, which will, in any case, be far superior to the Wal-Mart bill. After all, the Wal-Mart bill did not get health coverage for any of the 800,000 uninsured people in the state and arbitrarily fixed an 8% health spending share (why not 9%, 12% or 7.8%?) for these big companies.

Judge Motz observed that the recently passed Massachusetts universal health plan, in contrast, did not conflict with ERISA because it “addresses health care issues comprehensively and in a manner that arguably has only incidental effects upon ERISA plans.” It is clear now that we need creative and legally-expert new leadership to make universal health care for Maryland a priority and a reality.

State Senator Ida Ruben

I am hopeful that the Attorney General’s appeal of Judge Motz’s decision on the Fair Share Health Care Act will be overturned. If however, the appeal is unsuccessful, then I will work closely with the Attorney General on constitutionally acceptable legislation and I will introduce such legislation in the next Session.

More than any other employer, Wal-Mart shifts its health care costs onto taxpayers. In fact, as reported in the New York Times (10/26/05), Susan Chambers, Wal-Mart Executive Vice President for Benefits, for the Wal-Mart Board of Directors, said: “[O]ur critics are correct in some of their observations. Specifically, our coverage is expensive for low-income families, and Wal-Mart has a significant percentage of associates and their children on public assistance.”

As a nation and as a state must do more to ensure that all of our citizens have access to affordable health care. It is critical that large corporations do their fair share for their employees.

This year I supported legislation that created the Joint Legislative Task Force on Universal Access to Quality and Affordable Health Care. This Task Force will examine what Maryland can and should be doing to reform health care. Recently Massachusetts voted to approve legislation that will extend health care coverage to thousands of residents.

As President Pro Tem of the Senate, ensuring that Maryland residents have the best possible healthcare is one of my top priorities. I will continue to work with my colleagues to find innovative solutions for our families.

I sincerely thank all these candidates for their responses, and for being willing to discuss this issue in this format. I’ll add any additional candidate responses through Wednesday evening in an “UPDATE” section below, and thank them in advance as well. All candidates, their supporters, and everyone else can also leave comments by clicking the “[#] comment[s]” link at the bottom of this post.

6 Responses to “Democratic District 20 candidates on Fair Share Health Care”

  1. eRobin Says:

    Wow. Good answers. I don’t like the way some of them seem to like the Mass. bill though. I don’t like that plan.
    Raskin’s answer was my favorite. Even though he mentioned Massachusetts, he also mentioned unionizing WalMart. Me likey.
    But we can all do better than Massachusetts’ plan.

  2. anonymousgf Says:

    More excellent local reporting!
    And I pretty much agree with what eRobin says, especially with her dislike of the Mass insurance bill.

  3. Cricket Says:

    Well, I’m underwhelmed. Most of the responses simply shrug at this painful legal setback, letting WalMart off the hook in favor of a MA-type plan, which isn’t likely to happen any time soon, if it happens at all. Is it OK for WalMart to continue to rip off MD taxpayers while we wait for major reform in health care?
    Forcing WalMart and other huge corporations to pay their fair share would have been much more than an interim fix while we wait for universal health care (which nobody wants more than I do). It would have made clear that Maryland does not tolerate such injustice to workers by offering to underwrite the costs that WalMart et al. don’t want to pay.
    Jamie’s contribution was helpful from the legal perspective, but I fear that the long-overdue unionization of WalMart is an even bigger and longer-term challenge, given WalMart’s long history of fighting union drives with the dirtiest possible tactics.

  4. eRobin Says:

    Arrghh! Foiled by Haloscan! I have to leave these links, which I think will contribute to the conversation in separate comments.
    Here’s Ezra on the MA law.
    Here’s Ezra Klein on employer-based health care.

  5. eRobin Says:

    Here’s Nathan Newman in favor of Employer-based health care.
    Here he in again, this time writing about the Chicago big box living wage ordinance, which is ERISA-proof.

  6. » Blog Archive » Worth reading — Super Tuesday edition Says:

    […] * UPDATE, 2/5: The Massachusetts law was mentioned by many Maryland District 20 candidates in 2006 in discussing how or whether to fix “Fair Share Health Care,” a plan mandating […]

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