Health insurance questions brought to BDN forum

Meg Haskell of the Bangor Daily News (left) introduces panelists (from left) Mitchell Stein, Dr. Sheila Pinette and Joel Allumbaugh before a health insurance discussion at the Bangor Public Library on Monday.
Gabor Degre | BDN
Meg Haskell of the Bangor Daily News (left) introduces panelists (from left) Mitchell Stein, Dr. Sheila Pinette and Joel Allumbaugh before a health insurance discussion at the Bangor Public Library on Monday.
Posted Aug. 15, 2011, at 11:03 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Though health insurance reform is complex and often divisive, the topic generated lively discussion among participants in a public forum Monday night at the Bangor Public Library.

Pam Taylor, who hails from Forest City and Bangor, spoke of the difficulties rural Mainers face when it comes to accessing health care. Forest City, a small Washington County border town, recently lost its only physician, forcing residents to drive at least 60 miles to the nearest hospital and doctors’ offices.

Another woman, who did not identify herself, said that she was worried about Maine’s Dirigo Health plan being phased out since it is the only plan that would insure a family member struggling with a mental health problem.

Paul LeClair of Bangor wanted to know what the governor is doing to address the problem of illegal immigrants who are showing up in Maine emergency rooms without health insurance, leaving others to pick up the tab.

Stephen Leavitt of Bangor wanted to know what will happen to health reforms if President Barack Obama isn’t re-elected next fall.

These were some of the questions and concerns raised during a community outreach event hosted by the Bangor Daily News with support from the Maine Health Access Foundation.

The second BDN outreach event to date, the forum brought together a panel of experts on health insurance reform at the state and national levels and some of the Mainers who will be affected by changes in the way health insurance is provided in the future.

Many of the roughly 20 people who attended work in the health care field and related professions. Others attended in the hope of getting answers to questions about future coverage and to express frustrations.

Panelists were Joel Allumbaugh, director of the Center for Health Reform Initiatives at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, who provided the perspective of insurance providers; Mitchell Stein, policy director of Consumers for Affordable Health Care; Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The first half of the forum offered insights from the three panelists and was followed by a question-and-answer session moderated by BDN Health Editor Meg Haskell, who worked for years as a registered nurse.

Last year, Obama signed the Affordable Care Act of 2010 into law, triggering what most agree will be sweeping changes in health insurance. The legislation’s goal is to significantly expand the public’s access to insurance, and therefore health care.

Provisions of the law will be phased into effect over the next several years, such as health insurance exchanges that will allow individuals and small businesses to pool together and use their collective leverage to get better deals and more accountability from insurance companies.

In Maine, some changes already have taken effect. Young adults up to the age of 26 now may stay on their parents’ health insurance policies. A lifetime cap on benefits has been eliminated and preventive care is fully covered.

Bigger changes, however, are in store by 2014, when states will be required to provide health insurance exchanges, a marketplace offering consumers a range of coverage options. It will be up to each state to come up with its own version and the process is expected to be driven by the political process.

While the panelists differed on many of the finer points, they all agreed on one thing: Many of the health conditions that are causing state and national health care costs to be among the highest in the world are the result of lifestyle choices. As such, most can be avoided through healthier eating and regular exercise.

In Maine, the state’s obesity epidemic is at the root of many of its most common health problems, chief among them diabetes and heart problems.

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