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Panel: Maine Paying Price for Opting Out of ACA Exchange
10/21/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Democratic leaders on a special legislative committee say the state is paying a price for the LePage administration's decision to opt out of creating its own health insurance exchange. Instead, the state is allowing the federal government to run the exchange. As A.J. Higgins reports, panelists on the Maine Health Exchange Advisory Committee say the missed money could have helped more Mainers access health care.

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Members of the Maine Health Exchange Advisory Committee meet today in Augusta.

Although Mainers are expressing growing interest in health insurance options under the Affordable Care Act, state Sen. Margaret Craven says the state missed the boat by not creating its own exchange to help residents access their health insurance options.

Craven is the Senate chair of the Maine Health Exchange Advisory Committee. She says part of the problem is getting information out about the program. But states that have chosen to run their own exchanges are in better shape. "Other states took it, and they have media outreach, they have individuals on the ground to do outreach," Craven says.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage sided with other Republican governors to oppose the ACA - also known as Obamacare - and said he would not lift a finger to set up a state exchange that serves as a marketplace for companies wanting to sell insurance products in Maine.

After hearing from Christie Hager, the top federal Department of Health and Human Services official for New England, on Monday, Craven says she's confident the state still will still have options to create its own exchange - or marketplace -- after 2014.

She says the state might even be able to apply for a federal grant that would help familiarize Mainers with the program that has come under fierce criticism for being difficult to access and understand. "I think that Christine Hager suggested that there might still be a grant available to do publicity and outreach to our consumers, which this administration refused to apply for," Craven says.

And that's the kind of immediate need that proponents of the embattled health insurance program say is needed. According to statistics cited by federal DHHS officials, many of the 133,000 Mainers who are currently uninsured could finally get into a health care insurance program under the ACA.

Emily Brostek, who oversees the statewide help line for the Augusta-based Consumers for Affordable Health Care, says her agency has received more than 350 calls this month. And many of the inquiries reveal a significant lack of information about health care options.

"Many callers when they reach us don't know exactly what the marketplace is," Brostek says, "but they may have heard something about new options or that they need to have health insurance in the future and they just kind of need to know what they should be doing."

At the Maine Primary Care Association, which works with the state's 19 federally-qualified health centers, Caroline Zimmerman works as the director of health initiatives. She says it would be helpful if the exchange advisory committee could recommend other options for enrolling the estimated 230,000 Maine consumers who could benefit under the federal program.

"If there are any ways that we could facilitate enrollment quickly, either through a Maine specific Web site, I think that would be first and foremost," Zimmerman says.

Federal DHHS officials say they will not be able to provide actual numbers on how many Mainers have signed up under the Affordable Care Act until next month. Consumers have until Dec. 15 to ensure their coverage takes effect Jan. 1. Enrollment is open until March 30.

Photo:  A.J. Higgins


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