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Md. Senate OKs temporary coverage

The Maryland Senate gave final approval Tuesday to a bill that extends temporary insurance coverage to residents who unsuccessfully attempted to register for coverage through the state’s health benefits exchange.

A worker in the Statehouse steams wrinkles out of the U.S. and Maryland flags in preparation for Gov. Martin J. O’Malley’s State of the State address scheduled for Thursday.

The Senate’s 38-8 vote came less than 24 hours after the same body voted 36-8 to approve an amended version of the emergency bill.

Two-thirds of the chamber’s Republicans, including its No. 2, voted against the measure.

“We’re not sure this is necessary,” said Sen. Joseph M. Getty, R-Carroll and the Senate minority whip.

Getty said he and other Republicans also wanted to see the Senate Finance Committee investigate the failures of the site before enacting legislation.

But other Republicans — even some who voted against the legislation that allowed the state to create the struggling health care exchange in the first place — said Tuesday’s vote was about helping people harmed by the problems with the website.

“This is certainly a short-term remedy for that,” said Sen. David R. Brinkley, R-Frederick, the Senate minority leader.

Brinkley said Tuesday that he was voting for the emergency bill because it provided help to people who were uninsured despite their best efforts to register through MarylandHealthConnection.gov.

The Senate amendments allow the insurance program to extend benefits beyond March 31 to anyone who’s still unable to register for insurance. The bill would also allow the state to develop the regulations it needs and give it 15 days after that to notify the legislature of them.

Another amendment sunsets the bill on June 30, 2015.

The plan could cost as much as $12 million to cover those affected (estimates vary from 200 to 5,000 people).

A number of others were still eligible Tuesday for coverage from private insurers, and Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said that the cost of the plan, which is funded through the high-risk pool known as the Maryland Health Insurance Program, would encourage people to seek other, less-expensive options.

So far, 458 households have applied for the extended-deadline private insurance rather than seek insurance through the emergency bridge plan, said Middleton.

Legislators raised concerns about ongoing costs, and Middleton said no additional money from the general fund would be used if the program uses up its current $150 million in reserves.

“It’s understood if this money is used up, there won’t be a general fund appropriation,” Middleton said.

The bill moves to the House of Delegates, which has yet to take up an identical measure filed in that chamber.