ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland lawmakers in the coming legislative session should set up the basic framework for a health benefit exchange that’s required by a new federal law, a state official told a health care reform council Friday.

If legislators act promptly, Secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary John Colmers said, the state will improve its odds of receiving certain federal funding available for “early innovators” and make it easier to hire an executive director for the program.

Colmers said the state could delay decisions on more controversial items, such as whether all insurance carriers will be able to participate in the exchange, a requirement of the federal health care overhaul.

“A lot of the decisions can’t be made this year, we don’t have enough information,” Colmers told the Health Care Reform Coordinating Council. The panel was appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley last spring and is studying how the new federal health care reform law will affect Maryland.

Council members have held public meetings around the state to collect input from residents about how Maryland should implement health care reform.

Staffers advising the panel are recommending that the initial benefit exchange be a public entity to ensure accountability and transparency, since government organizations are required to hold open meetings and provide access to financial records. They note that the exchange could possibly be turned over to a nonprofit organization down the road, depending on how the program evolves, but Colmers said he was not aware of any interested groups at this time.

Major elements of federal health care reform don’t become effective in 2014. But Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who co-chairs the state reform council with Colmers, urged immediate action on exploring how financial incentives could be used to address racial and ethnic disparities in areas such as infant mortality.

“There is some data we already know, ” Brown said. “Where we do have data, we have to act on it today.”

Brown also stressed that the state should identify an agency to lead the reform efforts and that would likely report to the governor.

“You need an individual that can provide directions or offer instructions,” Brown said.

Maryland House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell says he sees no reason for the state legislature to pass any health care reform measures in 2011 given that a federal judge in Virginia this week found a key portion of the federal health care law to be unconstitutional.

“We know at least one federal judge has declared this law to be unconstitutional and another federal judge in Florida will probably rule soon,” O’Donnell, a Republican, said. “That brings into question whether we should be rushing to set up infrastructure when we don’t know if the law can withstand these tests. When you overlay this issue with our budget problems, I find it hard to accept we would create new programs when we can’t pay our current bills for a federal mandate that may not go forward.”

Maryland has roughly 700,000 to 800,000 uninsured residents at this time, according to state health department estimates. Once the federal reform law is fully implemented, that number will likely be cut in half, according to a report issued by the council over the summer. The federal law won’t help all uninsured residents because it doesn’t apply to people who aren’t citizens, and not everyone who is eligible for Medicaid applies for it.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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