As the Maryland General Assembly opens the 2021 legislative session, nothing looks the same. Hallways that usually teem with advocates, interns and the public are eerily silent. In-person rallies are cancelled. Plexiglass or empty seats separate legislators when they are present, and most committee meetings and floor sessions have moved online.
“The setting might look enormously different, but our work and mission remain very much the same,” said Catholic Charities Director of Advocacy Regan Vaughan. “We will continue to advocate for our key priorities, highlight the stories of those we work with, and champion systemic policy changes in our work for justice.”
Vaughan pointed to four key policy areas of focus.
In recent years, the agency has advocated for increases in Medicaid provider rates, which affect a wide spectrum of Catholic Charities programs, including those focused on behavioral health, people with disabilities and seniors. But in early December, Gov. Larry Hogan announced some great news – as part of COVID-19 relief, a rate increase expected on July 1 would instead take effect six months earlier.
“This is significant for the agency’s budget in a year when we’ve had to adapt to COVID and the fiscal issues that come with that,” Vaughan said.
Catholic Charities will continue watching the rates included in next year’s budget, and will keep a close eye on safety-net supports that benefit clients, particularly cash-assistance programs.
Telehealth upended the health care landscape over the past year, but remote support ended up benefiting many Catholic Charities clients. The agency will follow bills that allow for the continuation of such services after the impact of COVID-19 have eased.
“We’ve learned so many lessons during the pandemic about telehealth, and we don’t want to revert,” Vaughan said.
More generally, the agency will prioritize creating a health care system – including behavioral, public, and long-term health care – that is accessible, affordable and robust.
The agency is watching two bills supporting aimed at supporting immigrants. One would ensure that Marylanders who have been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and face removal from the U.S. have access to a lawyer. Some parts of Maryland already provide legal representation in these cases, but because they are civil – rather than criminal – proceedings, it is not required across the state. Under the proposed bill, it would become a statewide and state-funded practice.
The second bill, the Maryland Trust Act, attempts to build stronger relationships between immigrant communities and police by limiting where and when people can be screened for immigration violations. If a person is pulled over for a broken tail light, for example, this bill would prevent police for running them through the ICE database and detaining them.
“These bills are about recognizing the dignity of our immigrant and refugee neighbors,” Vaughan said.
The agency’s key focus in this area in 2021 is on family and medical leave. Specifically, Catholic Charities supports creating an insurance fund that would provide partial wage replacement for up to 12 weeks for any Maryland employee needing to take this type of leave. The state’s workers and employers would support the fund, and the benefits would be far reaching across Catholic Charities’ programs – the mother who has to take time off while her child waits for a placement in a behavioral health program; the brother who needs time to support a sibling with developmental disabilities; the parents needing to take leave after a child is born.
The 2021 legislative session of the Maryland General Assembly started on Jan. 13 and runs through April 12. More information about Catholic Charities’ advocacy and ways to get involved are available here.