With the summer coming to an end, many of the laws passed by the Maine Legislature will be going into effect this month. One of those laws is the major health insurance overhaul Republicans pushed through a few months ago.
We are already seeing the negative effects of this health insurance overhaul. The Ellsworth American reported recently that some small businesses in rural Maine will be seeing their health insurance costs go up more than 60 percent as early as October.
According to the report, small businesses in Hancock, Washington and Aroostook counties will see insurance premiums rise more than 60 or 70 percent. One company in Presque Isle may see an increase of 90 percent.
Premium hikes like these will put the companies at their breaking points. A recent survey of Maine people by Market Decisions found that 21 percent fear losing health insurance coverage in the next 12 months. Nearly 40 percent of those individuals said the top reason for their fear was the new health care law passed by Republicans in Augusta.
It’s no wonder they are afraid. The insurance overhaul will allow insurance companies selling individual policies to set rates based on age at up to five times higher than the lowest rate. And, most troubling, there will be no limits on rate changes depending on where you live, or what kind of job you have.
During the floor debate, I asked this question to all the lawmakers in the House: “What effect will this have on premiums for a 50-year-old, self-employed fisherman living on an offshore island?” No one answered, either because they did not know or did not like the answer.
The law also creates a reinsurance pool controlled almost completely by insurance companies that will be paid for with a new tax on every insurance holder.
Democrats in the Legislature opposed this law for many reasons. We feared it would drive up costs for small businesses in rural Maine. We feared it would hurt people living in rural Maine. We feared it would hurt anyone over the age of 48.
When the law was debated in the Legislature, Republicans would not give the state Bureau of Insurance time to provide an updated analysis of its effect. However, an analysis of a similar proposal from 2007 showed the measure could cause health care rates in rural Maine to go up at least 20 percent.
Now, we see the reality may be even worse than the initial estimates.
Gov. LePage and Republicans in the Legislature recklessly rushed this bill into law with no data to back up the merits of the plan.
In addition to making health care more expensive for rural Mainers, the law repeals rules that limit how far an insurance company can ask policy holders to travel to get care in network. It will now be more expensive for people living in rural communities to visit their local doctor.
While younger Mainers living in the southern part of the state will see lower costs from the Republican plan, the people in our state who need health insurance the most — and can least afford it — will suffer. That’s not the Maine way.
Businesses across Maine already say health insurance costs in our state make it hard to do business here. The effect of the law has yet to be fully felt, but we are already seeing that this misdirected law is causing harm to our small businesses.
The law is especially bad for a state in which 90 percent of our businesses have less than 20 employees.
Lawmakers should make lowering the cost of health care for Maine people our top priority. Democrats and Republicans disagree about the best way to get to do it. Now we are beginning to see proof that the rushed Republican plan is taking us in the wrong direction.
Health insurance costs are a symptom. High health care costs are the disease, but the underlying problem is our lack of a coordinated health care system that delivers quality preventive care, manages chronic disease efficiently and controls costs. Compare health care to a patient with shortness of breath, heart disease and a poor diet, smoking habit and unhealthy lifestyle. Treating the symptoms without changing the underlying causes is futile.
Walter Kumiega is a Democratic member of the Maine House of Representatives representing District 36. He lives in Deer Isle.