Report credits Dirigo for Maine’s small leap to universal health care coverage

Posted Dec. 13, 2010, at 5:28 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The challenge to expand coverage under the federal health care overhaul law won’t be as daunting in Maine as it is in much of the nation, according to a new report.

Maine already has been involved in innovative efforts to provide affordable health coverage for its residents, making the leap to broad coverage easier, according to the report’s authors, who have been studying the impact of the new federal law for months.

The Maine Advisory Committee on Health Systems Development and the Steering Committee on Health Reform will hold a public hearing Tuesday on the report. It contains recommendations to the governor and Legislature on how the state should implement the national health overhaul that was signed into law by President Barack Obama earlier this year.

The two groups held 14 public meetings across Maine before completing their draft report, which was released Dec. 8.

Gov. John Baldacci, who leaves office in January, signed the Dirigo Health program into law in 2003, extending insurance to thousands of Maine residents and small businesses. While seen at the time as a groundbreaking program, Dirigo has encountered criticism for not fulfilling its expectations and costing too much.

Because Maine has “been an innovative state, committed to providing affordable health coverage for its citizens, the leap to cover individuals” under the federal Affordable Care Act is not as great as it is in much of the nation, the report said.

Maine will need to develop a plan to transition individuals from Dirigo to programs under the ACA, it said. Mainers now eligible for Dirigo programs will qualify for federal tax credits to subsidize coverage available through a newly created exchange beginning in 2014, it says.

The federal law requires states to have an exchange, an insurance marketplace for individuals and smaller businesses that promote competition to drive down costs. The federal government will form exchanges for states that do not set them up.

Among other recommendations, the report says Maine should consider whether to join a multistate insurance compact, which would allow insurers to offer products across state lines in or after 2016, and if so, which states it would like to partner with.

While the newly sworn-in Legislature and administration of Gov.-elect Paul LePage digest the impacts of the federal law, the Maine Medical Association is hoping to persuade the state’s leaders not to join several other states that are suing to repeal the national health care law.

William Schneider, who has been elected Maine attorney general, opposes the law and believes it’s unconstitutional. He plans to talk to LePage about whether Maine should join the lawsuit.

The MMA, which represents Maine doctors, also plans to meet with LePage or his staff and top state lawmakers to point out the benefits of the federal law in Maine, said Gordon Smith, executive vice president.

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