By Megan Poinski

Maryland state sealWith 430 assistant attorneys general working throughout Maryland state government, you might think that transferring one of them to the new Health Benefit Exchange could be a way to save the state a bit of money.

Deputy Attorney General J.B. Howard told the Board of Public Works that definitely isn’t the case.

“Our office has virtually no discretion to find these types of efficiencies you are describing,” Howard said.

Before the board approved $107,006 in grant money to hire the new attorney on Wednesday, Comptroller Peter Franchot asked if the state could just reassign an attorney to that position. Even though the new attorney’s salary is relatively small when compared to state finances, and even though the lawyer would be paid out of grants and revenues from the federally mandated Health Benefits Exchange, Franchot said that just moving an attorney would save money.

“It still is taxpayers’ money,” said Franchot, who later cast the only vote against the move.

Howard explained that there are 430 assistant attorneys general working throughout state government, but just 99 of them actually work directly in the Attorney General’s Office. The others are scattered throughout different state agencies, and their salaries come from the agencies they work for. Howard said the attorney general’s office has no say over the budget and positions in other departments, even though there may be departments that could give up an attorney to go work for the Health Benefits Exchange.

According to Howard and Deputy Health Secretary for Operations Thomas Kim, the attorneys who work for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene are providing legal counsel to the Health Benefits Exchange, which is a new plan to make health care affordable and available to Marylanders. They are stretched very thin, and need an attorney to take on the issues the exchange is facing full time.

“Maryland is in the lead of health care reform,” said Howard. “If we can’t get one federally funded lawyer in there right now, it will hurt our efforts.”

Franchot said he would prefer to wait on approving the new attorney. Now is the time for the Attorney General’s Office to start having high-level discussions with other state departments to try to make operations more efficient, he said.

Board members Gov. Martin O’Malley and Treasurer Nancy Kopp both voted for the contract. They said the attorney should be hired before talks about creating more efficiency.