POLL QUESTION

Fast-tracked health insurance bill clears House in party-line vote

Posted May 05, 2011, at 7:39 p.m.
Last modified May 06, 2011, at 10:19 a.m.

Poll Question

In a party-line vote on Thursday,  House Republicans gave initial approval to a package of sweeping changes in Maine’s health insurance laws, overriding minority Democrats’ objections that lawmakers had not had time to read the contents of the bill or consider the implications of their vote.

Republicans say the changes are needed to stimulate competition in Maine’s stagnant health insurance market, support the business community and bring younger, healthier Mainers into the insurance risk pool.

Democrats say the provisions will raise premiums for older Mainers and those who live in rural areas, drive those with chronic illness into plans with poorer coverage, and worsen the social and economic divide between Maine’s poorer, older and more rural north and its more affluent, youthful and populous southern regions.

The party-line vote was 76 in favor, 72 opposed, and three absent. The House’s one unenrolled member voted with the Democrats.

The bill is scheduled for a second reading in the House on May 10. The Senate also must vote on the bill.

During the House debate leading up to the roll-call vote, more than a dozen Democrats registered their opposition to the provisions of the bill as well as to its fast-track progress through the legislative process.

Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, a member of the Insurance and Financial Services Committee, compared the bill to a used car “rushed off the lot so fast that the Bondo patching wasn’t even dry.”

The complex bill was “rushed out of committee” during the work session last Friday and approved along party lines without an opportunity for lawmakers to read it or have their questions answered, she said in her comments before the vote. Wednesday night at about 10 p.m. the final language of the bill was posted online, she said, leaving lawmakers little opportunity to review it before voting on Thursday.

Treat urged legislative newcomers to resist the bill’s “hard sell” by GOP leadership and take the time to understand its impact on longstanding consumer protections and on the insurance industry.

“This will affect every insurance policy purchased in the state of Maine,” she said.

Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor, said the bill could force Mainers to travel “from Wytopitlock to Boston” for care, drive up the cost of insurance for Mainers in rural areas, and conflict with the implementation in Maine of national health reforms. Goode said the partisan split in the committee could have been avoided had Republican leaders provided additional materials and time to seek compromise with Democrats.

Apparently confident of their majority, few Republicans spoke on the House floor. Rep. Jon McKane, R-Newcastle, defended the bill against its detractors. McKane argued that the provisions of the bill have been debated individually over many years and reflect consumer demand for greater choice in the insurance market.

Earlier proposals have sought the total elimination of consumer protections and insurance mandates, he said.

“This is a very kind, gentle compromise of what has been proposed in the past,” McKane said. “It will put Maine on the path to normalcy. … The alternative is the status quo … and it is hard to believe anyone thinks that’s working.”

The final version of the bill contains provisions that would allow insurance companies greater flexibility in what they charge for their coverage based on a policyholder’s age, occupation, geographic location in the state and smoking status.

It creates a new high-risk pool for Mainers who have pre-existing conditions, paying for their coverage with a $4 charge added to the monthly premium of every policyholder in the state. It establishes a new, quasi-governmental agency, the Maine Guaranteed Access Reinsurance Association, with an 11-member board to govern the operations of the high-risk pool.

It allows insurers to offer financial incentives for policyholders to travel to distant facilities for health care services.  It eliminates the State Health Plan and the advisory board that guides development of health care delivery systems in the state.

The bill also creates a mechanism for Maine residents and businesses to purchase insurance from companies in other New England states and establishes tax credits for small businesses that offer workplace wellness programs.

Veteran lawmaker Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, joined fellow Democrats in decrying the bill, especially the repeal of a rule that prohibits insurers from forcing policyholders to travel for health care services. Martin, who first championed such a regulation about 15 years ago, said in a conversation after the vote that insured people in Maine’s most northerly areas could have to travel to Bangor, Portland or farther for health services if the bill becomes law.

That change would have profound implications not only for rural Mainers but for small hospitals and the communities they serve, Martin said.

“I hope rural Mainers all over the state will get on the phone and contact their legislators” before the bill becomes law,  Martin said.

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