AUGUSTA, Maine — The Republican-controlled Maine Senate passed a bill Thursday that avoids setting up a health insurance exchange as outlined in the federal Affordable Care Act.
LD 1497 delays any action until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on constitutional challenges of the federal health care reform law. If the law is upheld, the bill says only licensed insurance brokers can enroll people in health plans through an exchange.
The bill requires fingerprinting and licensing of consumer advocates, or “navigators,” who are supposed to help people obtain affordable health insurance.
All 19 Republicans voted for the bill. The 15 Senate Democrats and independent Sen. Dick Woodbury of Yarmouth opposed. The bill passed in a similarly narrow and partisan vote in the House late last month.
Sen. Rodney Whittemore, R-Skowhegan, said the bill creates a mechanism for people to find cheaper health care.
“If we had done something now and part of the law gets repealed, we will have created an exchange that isn’t valid,” he said.
“This do-nothing bill misses an opportunity for Maine to improve access to health care for Maine people,” said Sen. Joe Brannigan of Portland, who also serves on the Insurance and Financial Affairs Committee. “I guess my Republican colleagues would rather leave these choices to the feds instead of giving a greater voice to Maine.”
Health insurance exchanges are designed to make health insurance more affordable by serving as marketplaces for businesses and consumers to shop for health plans. Under the Affordable Care Act, states are required to set up the exchanges by 2014.
A Democratic bill, LD 1498, would have done just that in Maine but it failed to generate wide support in the Insurance and Financial Services Committee last month. That bill narrowly failed in the House on Wednesday.
Instead, Republicans on the insurance committee approved LD 1497 and sent that bill forward for a vote.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jonathan McKane, R-Newcastle, said last month he wouldn’t be “complicit” in the federal Affordable Care Act’s implementation.
“I personally don’t believe in the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “I don’t see how adding more bureaucracy to an already overburdened system of bureaucracy now is going to help things. What I do know is that the costs, although very, very high already, we’re still not sure of.”
Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, who sponsored LD 1498, said Maine is wrong to delay setting up something that could help people save money on insurance.
“I just don’t think closing our eyes and hoping the whole thing goes away is really a responsible solution to what is a huge issue in this state and all over this country, which is thousands of people who do not have health insurance, who do not have access to care,” she said.
Twenty-six states, including Maine, are challenging as unconstitutional the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that nearly all Americans purchase health insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the challenge last month and is expected to issue its ruling in June.
As of last month, 13 states, including Vermont and Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia, already had set up their exchanges, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Most other states still are studying their options.
States that fail to set up their own exchanges will have to hand the reins over to the federal government, but LD 1497 ensures that doesn’t happen.
Last November, Maine won $6 million from the federal government to begin designing its exchange. That money likely will have to be returned without the creation of an exchange, although Whittemore said Maine technically never had the money.
Also on Thursday, in a similar party-line vote, the Senate approved LD 1702, An Act to Correct Inconsistencies and Ambiguities in the Maine Guaranteed Access Reinsurance Association Act.
This bill, among other things, allows the Reinsurance Association that was created under Public Law 90 to hold closed meetings without public notice, although the information would later be made public. The association determines rate increases for the reinsurance pool.
“It is stunning to me that we are afraid of transparency,” said Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham. “Handing more power and money to the insurance companies without public oversight flies in the face of what is best for Maine people.”
Follow BDN reporter Eric Russell on Twitter @BDNPolitics.