DAVID FARMER

Don’t let consumers be sold out to big insurance

Posted May 04, 2011, at 8:19 p.m.
Last modified May 04, 2011, at 8:35 p.m.

When two members of Gov. Paul LePage’s Cabinet lost their jobs over scandal late last week, it’s no wonder that people took notice.

The news was dominated by coverage of the resignations and speculation about what the shakeup would mean for a young administration that has had trouble finding its rhythm.

In the shadows of the calamity in the Governor’s Office and late in the day Friday, the Legislature’s Insurance and Financial Services Committee passed a bill that could have profound — and hurtful — effects for thousands of Mainers.

Republicans on the committee rammed through a rewrite of state law that undermines consumer protections, leaving many at the mercy of out-of-state insurance companies.

LD 1333, a narrow bill, about four-pages long, was amended with 24 pages of new text, which if enacted would fundamentally change health insurance in Maine. There was limited opportunity for public comment on the amended version and the Democratic members of the committee were given only a few hours to actually read the proposed law.

The bill was passed out of committee on a party-line vote and now heads to the full Legislature for consideration.

The bill should be soundly rejected.

Among its elements, the bill assesses a $4 monthly fee on every insurance policy in the state.

It allows out-of-state insurance companies to avoid Maine consumer protections and sell insurance in Maine, and for employers to form insurance associations exempt from Maine’s consumer protection laws.

It allows insurance companies to deny coverage to anyone they want, eliminating guarantee issue in the individual market.

It increases the cost of insurance for people who are older, for women, for people who have dangerous jobs and for those who live in rural areas.

The bill gives insurance companies the power to force residents to travel great distances for health care services. For consumers in Washington and Aroostook counties and Maine’s western mountains, this change could have a major impact on their lives, forcing them to travel to Bangor, Lewiston or Portland for treatments that now they are allowed to receive closer to home.

And it segregates some people — those with pre-existing conditions, such as cancer survivors — into a high-risk pool, where their premiums will be higher and which will require substantial taxpayer subsidies to function.

The bill is a gift to big, out-of-state insurance companies who want to skim the healthiest Mainer’s into cheap health insurance plans with limited coverage and leave the oldest, the sickest and the most vulnerable in a state-run, taxpayer-financed sick pool.

Maine has the fourth-lowest rate of uninsured people in the country, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. We are consistently ranked as one of the healthiest states, despite having a population that is older and poorer than other parts of the country.

We have had good public health programs, and we have been relentless about efforts to reduce smoking and teen pregnancy and to control chronic diseases.

Maine has pioneered consumer protections that allow students to stay on the family insurance policy, piloted programs to make health care more patient-centered and launched an innovative voucher program to help small business provide health insurance to their workers.

As a state, we have made a decision that young women, who are of child-bearing age, should not be penalized with higher health insurance costs; we have said that insurance must cover mammography to help catch cancer earlier and save lives; and that insurance covers treatment of mental illness.

All of those protections, and many more, are in jeopardy.

Ironically, this terrible bill does something else that you wouldn’t expect from Republicans: It creates a brand new bureaucracy and funds it with an assessment on people who buy health insurance.

Hypocrisy.

Health insurance costs too much for too many people. Folks who have insurance are scared that they will lose it or won’t be able to afford it tomorrow. Medical costs are out of control.

But the amended LD 1333 doesn’t fix any of that. In fact, it kills the State Health Plan, which includes important cost control mechanisms.

The proponents of this bill think that Maine is like Idaho, which has a law similar to parts of this bill, and they think that the free market and big insurance companies will protect consumers.

I do not trust that big, out-of-state insurance companies have my family’s best interests at heart. Do you?

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.

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