Lawmakers need to “shut up and listen” to the people when it comes to health care, according to Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele.

The government must work to ensure competition in the health insurance market and to find ways to make affordable coverage available to poor families, Steele said at a conference organized by the National Association of Health Underwriters, Arlington, Va.

Steele is a Republican who is attracting extensive national press coverage of his efforts to fill the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md.

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Steele took office in 2003.

That year, insurers were leaving the state, Steele said.

Steele said the Ehrlich administration responded by trying to make the state’s health insurance market as competitive as its automobile insurance market.

“When lots of companies compete for my business, I win,” Steele said.

To improve Maryland’s competitive climate for health insurers, “we stopped suing underwriters … for being underwriters,” Steele said.

Steele attacked a controversial new Maryland law that would require large companies to spend a percentage of their payroll on employee health care or pay the same amount into a state fund. The bill, known as the “Wal-Mart” bill because the retailer is the only company that would be affected, was vetoed by Ehrlich, but the veto was subsequently overturned by the state assembly, which is controlled by Democrats.

“We cannot afford a ‘Wal-Mart’ solution,” that would dictate to a business how much coverage it must provide an employee,” Steele said.

Steele, who said he himself once ran a small business, praised the new health savings account system and spoke in favor of the association health care concept.

Creating AHPs is “one way we can empower small businesses,” to be better able to provide health care coverage for employees, Steele said.