AUBURN, Maine — For more than three hours, they were angry and they were heard.
Hundreds of people packed Kirk Hall at Central Maine Community College on Thursday night for a comment session on Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s controversial new insurance proposal that would force individual policy holders into a network with MaineHealth providers.
Under the plan, patients who bought individual policies after March 2010 could no longer see doctors at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, Bridgton Hospital or Parkview Adventist Medical Center in Brunswick.
Speakers ripped Anthem and MaineHealth for proposing it and the state for considering it.
They questioned the increased drive times, abandoned long-term patient-doctor relationships, increased waits, risk of losing local jobs and having choice taken away.
Mary Dempsey said her mother, who has battled cancer, could have to leave CMMC, home to the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing that her son helped found.
“My mother is a very strong lady, and to see her break down in tears because she might have to go somewhere else is not acceptable,” Dempsey said. “Not acceptable.”
Daniel Rausch, a medical oncologist, said CMMC is the only Lewiston hospital that offers radiation therapy. He’d have to tell sick patients to drive five days a week to Portland or Augusta.
“I don’t know how that qualifies as comparable care,” he said.
Allan Ingraham, recently retired head of vascular surgery at the CMMC heart center, said he was “disgusted and disappointed” that the state’s second-largest metropolitan area was getting such short shrift.
“To coin one of the governor’s famous statements, you should pass out some Vaseline to everybody in this area,” he said. “It is ignoring all of the achievements that have happened at Central Maine Medical Center.”
The state’s first breast care center. The state’s first helicopter service.
Comment after comment drew hoots and applause. Many CMMC employees and supporters in the audience wore lime-green “Please Keep Care Local” T-shirts. Another hundred people who couldn’t fit in the auditorium waited outside in the hall.
The Rev. Naomi King drove her electric wheelchair to the front of the packed room and introduced herself as Stephen King’s daughter. Her family, she said, has Anthem policies.
After her father’s horrific car accident in 1999, “it was Bridgton Hospital that stabilized him and Central Maine Medical Center that treated him,” King said. These changes would affect people who “helped him walk again and write great books and tell great stories.”
She said she’d put off some care if forced to travel 90 minutes from Western Maine to see a doctor.
“It is going to increase suffering in our community, enormously and economically,” King said.
Bill Young, CMMC’s former, longtime CEO, said he was “perplexed” that the state was considering the plan but understood why MaineHealth, Maine Medical Center’s parent, wanted it.
In the 1970s, CMMC was small and Maine Med was huge. People drove there for specialized care. In the mid-1970s, Young said, CMMC made a concerted effort to grow, and every specialist hired drew patients away from Maine Med.
“It’s very obvious from what we’ve done, we’ve never been a friend of Maine Medical Center,” he said.
Things came to a head when CMMC decided to open its heart center. Maine Med’s top cardiologists paid Young a visit.
“These men walked into our office here in Lewiston and told us we have absolutely no business ‘fooling with their patients,’ and that was their exact words. I’ll never forget it,” he said.
Ronald Reagan, Young said, called the Soviet Union the “evil empire” because it meant to do harm.
“I submit to you that Maine Medical Center, to the citizens of this region, to the providers of this region, they are the evil empire,” Young said.
Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald said the hospital was the city’s largest employer and he did not plan to see it lose any jobs.
“If you are going to play this game, that’s fine, because I will keep going the distance,” Macdonald said. “If it doesn’t (work,) we’ll go to step two. If it doesn’t, we’ll go to step three — I think that will get your attention.”
He walked away from the microphone without elaborating.
Anthem spokesman Christopher Dugan said the proposed plan would keep rates 12 percent lower for individuals than they would be after new Affordable Care Act costs.
People would also still have a choice, he said. They could choose to buy insurance from someone else.
“It certainly is not for every single person,” Dugan said.
There will be a formal public hearing on the proposal Monday, Sept. 9, at the Burton M. Cross Office Building in Augusta.
Superintendent of Insurance Eric Cioppa, who took in the hours of sworn comment Thursday, said he would rule on the proposal shortly thereafter.
“I won’t sit on it long,” he said.
The Lewiston session was the third and longest of the comment sessions, which made sense, Cioppa said. “I want to hear what people had to say.”
The event ran so long that a planned Q&A session around the Affordable Care Act was put off for another night, to be determined.