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Industry Insiders Dominate Maine Health Advisory Panel
08/09/2011   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Gov. Paul LePage has named a nine-member advisory committee to develop Maine's Health Insurance Exchange. The exchanges are mandated under the federal Affordable Care Act to connect uninsured Mainers with private insurance options, as well as subsidized plans, such as the state's MaineCare system. Nearly all of the committee members have professional ties to the health care industry and none are specifically designated to represent the public. But the LePage administration thinks it has that base covered.

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Earlier this year, the health care advocacy group known as Consumers for Affordable Health Care approached members of Gov. Paul LePage's staff about being included on a nine-member advisory panel that will make recommendations to the Legislature for the establishment of Maine's Health Insurance Exchange.

"They were very cordial, and I want to be very clear--they were very up-front and they let us know in advance before the appointments were made public that there was not a slot available for us to fill," says Mitchell Stein of Consumers for Affordable Health Care. "They listened, but, unfortunately, their answer was no."

Stein says his agency had hoped there would be at least one consumer member on the committee to represent the health care concerns of average Mainers as the state prepares to meet a 2014 deadline for getting the exchanges up and running.

The committee is chaired by former House Republican Leader Joe Bruno, who operates a chain of Maine pharmacies, and consists almost exclusively of health insurance and business lobbyists and executives in the health care industry.

Stein says the composition of the panel could have included a designed consumer representative, along with David Clough, a lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Businesses in Maine.

"While we very much appreciate the dialogue, again, not that it needed to be someone from our organization, but we would have liked to have seen additional consumer representation," Stein says.

"This is about expertise in systems, it's not about expertise in consumer protection," says Joe Bruno. Bruno says a consumer representative with no background in health insurance systems might be overwhelmed by the technical nature of the panel's discussions.

"We make a recommendation to the insurance and financial services committee, who then goes on to pass legislation for implementation," he says. "Consumers will have the ability at that point to talk about what they're worried about. But this is really a technical side of things. So a consumer representative with no experience in systems, I'm not sure would be very helpful."

Still, the panel won't be without a consumer representative. Under the federal Affordable Care Act that created the Health Insurance Exchanges to provide uninsured Mainers with health insurance options, there must be a tribal representative--and in a sense, that representative will be doing double duty, says Gov. LePage's press secretary Adrienne Bennett.

"All groups as required by statute are represented within this committee--including consumers--through the appointment of Jamie Bissonette Lewey," Bennett says. " She is the chair for the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission and she serves as a dual purpose here. The federal government requires tribal representation and she obviously will serve in that capacity, but she also is a consumer, so she will be representing that capacity as well."

The tribal representative on the panel was welcomed by state Rep. Henry Beck, but the Waterville Democrat says the LePage administration could have gone further in reassuring consumer concerns.

"We're really just looking for a balanced approach, so if there's several lobbysists, why can't there be one or maybe two specific consumer advocates who have institutional experience," Beck says. "Just because the LePage administration says someone's a consumer advocate doesn't mean they are."

The advisory committee is scheduled to report back to the Legislature by September 1st, but the panel may request an extension if they are unable to complete their work within the next few weeks.


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