Bad vibes infect Annapolis health care debate

By Josh Kurtz

If the Maryland Senate confirms Dennis Schrader to be secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, he – and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) – may have Schrader’s wife to thank.

Even as Schrader’s nomination remains a point of contention – due to a combination of rising partisanship in Annapolis and ongoing controversy over national Republicans’ plans to kill the Affordable Care Act – it’s evident that former state Sen. Sandy Schrader is enormously popular with her erstwhile colleagues.

Sandy Schrader, a moderate Republican who spent five years representing Howard County in the Senate before losing a 2006 re-election bid, sat in the front row during her husband’s confirmation hearing Monday, and several senators singled her out to say hello.

Sen. Guy Guzzone (D) – who now holds Schrader’s old seat and introduced Dennis Schrader to the Senate Executive Nominations Committee – told his colleagues, “It goes without saying that he is a very wise individual in choosing his wife.”

But however popular his wife is, Dennis Schrader’s nomination is caught in a variety of cross-currents. Democrats are trying to smoke Hogan out and force him to take a public stand on the repeal of Obamacare. Some senators wonder whether Schrader – a seasoned bureaucrat and an engineer by training, who worked for the University of Maryland Medical System for years – has the health policy chops to do the job when enormous changes are coming to the national health care system, courtesy of President Trump and the congressional GOP.

Many key Democrats – among them, Senate President Mike Miller (D) and Senate Finance Chairman Mac Middleton (D) – are still stewing over the fact that Hogan jettisoned one of their fellow southern Maryland Democrats, Van Mitchell, as health secretary late last year, without warning or explanation.

At the same time, Hogan is furious that Democrats appear to be playing politics with Schrader’s nomination. He has said that Democrats are jeopardizing the state’s response to what happens with health care policy at the national level by not acting fast enough on Schrader.

These competing storylines were simmering throughout the long day in Annapolis Monday, beginning with the appearance at Lawyers Mall of four Democratic members of Congress – Reps. Elijah Cummings, Steny Hoyer, Jamie Raskin and John Sarbanes – who called on Hogan to speak out against the Affordable Care Act repeal.

With Hogan surrogates telling the media throughout the day that the House members’ stance amounted to “grandstanding,” Cummings became livid.

“How dare you talk about grandstanding?” he yelled in a voice that Hogan could surely hear, wherever he was. “We’re talking about saving people’s lives.”

The House Democrats suggested that other Republican governors have been far more upfront about laying out their concerns over the bill now in Congress.

“Was the Republican governor of Ohio grandstanding when he came out against this bill?” Raskin wondered. “Was the Republican governor of Michigan grandstanding when he came out against this bill? Was the Republican governor of Arkansas grandstanding when he came out against this bill? They were exercising leadership – that’s what they were doing.”

The bad vibes carried over to the Executive Nominations hearing six hours later. Miller fumed that a member of Hogan’s staff had promised “serious consequences” if the panel did not vote to confirm Schrader that evening.

“That’s nonsense,” Miller said. “I’ll probably vote for you, but there will be no vote tonight.”

(Asked later what threat Miller was referring to, Chris Shank, Hogan’s chief legislative officer, shrugged.)

Schrader answered an array of policy questions – on everything from the state’s Medicaid waiver to opioid addiction to family planning to rural health care to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene bureaucracy. He laid out his biography at length and emphasized that Hogan does not want to jeopardize anyone’s health care.

“The governor’s been very clear that he doesn’t want to see anybody lose coverage” due to whatever the federal government enacts in lieu of Obamacare, Schrader said.

But only toward the end of the hearing did Sen. Bill Ferguson (D), the chairman of the committee, press Schrader on where he and the governor stood on the legislation now before Congress.

“There’s things we like about it and things we don’t like about it,” Schrader said.

He added that state officials had initially concluded that any changes to the federal health care law wouldn’t be enacted until 2020, giving the state “a glide path” to adapt. But he conceded it looks now that significant changes could be coming sooner.

“We’ve been pushing back hard, saying we cannot just leave our people stranded,” Schrader said.

Schrader said that Hogan, along with Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R), have been working behind the scenes to convince Trump administration officials to soften the impacts of any Obamacare repeal – and that he and Hogan would be meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price later this week.

But, he told the senators, change is inevitable, and he committed to working with them “collaboratively over this year – and we’re going to have to get creative.”

As the hearing wrapped up, Sen. Ed Reilly (R) pushed his colleagues to vote on Schrader’s nomination immediately. But Ferguson resisted, saying only that a vote would come “someday this week, later on in the week.”

Whatever reservations they may have about the bill before Congress, Hogan’s response to it, or Schrader himself, Senate Democrats are unlikely to reject Schrader’s nomination for precisely the reason that Hogan is so eager to see him confirmed: They don’t want to be seen as contributing to whatever chaos may come about in the state due to whatever new health care plan national Republicans put in place.

Then, there’s Sandy Schrader.

“Dennis Schrader’s chief advocate,” observed Sen. Rich Madaleno (D), “is his wife.”

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