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Maine Health Care Overhaul Bill Sparks Fierce Debate
05/05/2011   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A partisan skirmish that ignited during a committee meeting last week over a Republican-engineered health insurance overhaul escalated into a major confrontation on the floor of the House today, as Democrats assailed the plan they claim will make insurance unaffordable in rural Maine. Republicans said little as Democrats railed for two hours about the shortcomings of LD 1333, which Republicans say will actually lower health insurance costs and encourage competition among insurance companies. The bill received initial approval in a 76-72 party-line vote.

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House Republicans caucused for an hour before the session began to get most of their questions answered about an amended bill that was only printed within the last 24 hours. Tarren Bragdon of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative advocacy group, assured the GOP lawmakers that LD 1333 will reduce health insurance costs for Mainers by expanding the criteria for community ratings that are used to assign rates.

And Rep. Jonathan McKane, a Newcastle Republican who sponsored the bill, says LD 1333 is modeled after insurance regulations in Idaho. "Their 60-year-old in Idaho is paying the same amount as a 20-year-old in Maine," McKane said. "If that doesn't say we should do something, I don't know what will."

But Democrats opposed to the Republican plan say the bill will not deliver on the proposed savings and is being steamrolled through the House by the GOP majority with the same level of enthusiasm that it was ramrodded through the Insurance and Financial Affairs Committee a week ago.

Democratic Rep. Sharon Treat, of Hallowell, is a member of the panel. She compared the process that led to today's House vote to the sales pitch of a disreputable car dealer pushing a lemon on a skeptical buyer.

"LD 1333 was rushed off the lot so fast that the bondo patching wasn't even dry," Treat said. "And unfortunately the consequences of this bad deal won't merely affect one ripped-off car customer, but every insurance purchaser in the state of Maine."

Rep. Bruce MacDonald, a Boothbay Democrat, said he could hardly believe he was being asked to vote on such a complicated piece of legislation and that the 18,000-word document wasn't even available until he saw it online last night at 10 p.m.

"We have not had the time to understand it and vet it, and then act on it in the best interests of the people of the state of Maine," MacDonald said. "I proudly sit on the Marine Resources Committee under the able House chairmanship of Rep. Wendall Weaver. I can tell you that we have taken more time caring for the clams and the clam flats of the state of Maine then we are taking now taking care of the people of the state of Maine with this bill."

In addition to claiming that the GOP bill would eliminate the state's current policy of guaranteed access--which bans private insurers from dropping clients who switch policies--Democrats maintain that the revamping of a long-standing rule will result in a widening of the north-south, rural-urban economic division in Maine.

Democratic Rep. John Martin, of Eagle Lake, says LD 1333 will allow insurance companies to dictate to clients where they will have their medical procedures performed and steer business away from community hospitals in rural areas to the larger major medical centers in Bangor, Lewiston and Portland, so insurance companies can save money.

Then Martin promised Republicans who voted for the bill that he would take them on where they live in the next election cycle. "I'll be happy to go to your communities," said Martin. "I will go to Houlton. I will go to Machias. I will go to Norway. I will got to Caribou, and go to Presque Isle and have regional meetings to dicuss your vote."

"I think it's unfortunate that you have these political threats, but the facts will prove otherwise when these new plans begin to be available next July," says Tarren Bragdon, the Maine Heritage Policy Center executive who researched much of LD 1333.

Bragdon says the bill will promote competition by allowing Mainers to purchase insurance in several other New England states. Republican House Speaker Bob Nutting of Oakland says many Democrats will fight insurance reforms that don't look like a single payer plan, and that Republicans would not put their political careers on the line for legislation that wasn't good for all Mainers.

The bill faces a second vote in the House on Tuesday.



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