AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage has nominated a vocal opponent of the state’s Dirigo Health program to sit on its board of trustees as the health care program launched by his predecessor, Democrat John Baldacci, winds down in the coming year.
LePage this week chose Jonathan McKane of Newcastle, a Republican who served four terms in the Maine House, to serve on the Dirigo Health board.
LePage also nominated former Rep. Wesley Richardson, R-Warren, who served with McKane in the House, and renominated current board member Gary Reed of Falmouth. In addition, he chose another recently departed Republican legislator, former Bangor Sen. Nichi Farnham, to serve on the State Board of Education.
“I was probably one of the biggest opponents of Dirigo,” said McKane, whose time in the Legislature ended last year. “I didn’t see it as a well thought-out plan. There wasn’t really a good, sound business plan in the beginning.”
Dirigo Health, a signature initiative of Baldacci’s first term as governor, started in 2003 as an effort to make insurance coverage more affordable for small groups and individuals. Its mission originally was to make low-cost coverage available to all Maine residents by 2009. Today, the program offers coverage through Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, and some of the plan’s participants qualify for subsidies. The plan covered about 16,500 people in November 2011.
On the campaign trail and after taking office as governor, LePage opposed the program, and the Republican-led Legislature in 2011 phased out the funding mechanism for the program’s subsidies. Dirigo Health is funded largely through assessments charged to insurance companies on paid claims, and that funding stream is scheduled to dry up by the end of the year.
Dirigo Health also operates the Maine Quality Forum, the program’s research arm whose mission is to collect data on health care quality in Maine and disseminate best practices in health care.
“We did get some positive things out of Dirigo,” McKane said, referring to the Maine Quality Forum, which is funded in the same way as the program’s subsidies. However, “I don’t see how we could continue to fund that, but you never know.”
McKane’s nomination will go before the Legislature’s Insurance and Financial Services Committee — the panel on which he served while in the Legislature — before it goes to the Senate for confirmation. He’s likely to face some resistance from the committee’s Democrats.
“It’s an interesting nomination to say the least,” said Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, the committee’s House chairwoman. “Certainly, Rep. McKane did spend about his entire career in the Legislature opposing Dirigo Health and pursuing efforts to undermine or end it. I’m sure that the committee will have many questions for him.”
Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, called McKane, Richardson, Farnham and the governor’s other recent nominees for state boards “qualified candidates” and said LePage hopes “the confirmations are swift.”
Richardson, whose eight years in the Legislature ended last year, said the Dirigo Health program started out as too broad an initiative in 2003. But over time, he said, it’s evolved into a high-quality coverage option.
“It’s calmed down into the program that I think it originally was intended to be,” Richardson said. “I’ve heard from several people in the local area that that’s where their insurance is, and they think of the program as a good program.”
The subsidies available through Dirigo Health will phase out at the same time new subsidies and small-group and individual coverage options become available through the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration’s health care reform law.
LePage has said he intends to let the federal government set up the law’s mandated online health insurance marketplace, rather than create a state-based exchange.
“I am very opposed to Maine forming a state-based health exchange,” said McKane, a vocal Affordable Care Act opponent. “If, for some reason, it got past the Legislature and the governor to form one, Dirigo might be the template.”