Panel rejects LePage-nominated Dirigo Health critic along party lines; governor vows to keep seat vacant

Posted March 05, 2013, at 12:55 p.m.
Last modified March 05, 2013, at 6:32 p.m.
Jonathan McKane
Jonathan McKane

AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative committee voted along party lines Tuesday to oppose Gov. Paul LePage’s nomination of a vocal and longtime Dirigo Health critic to the program’s board.

LePage said late Tuesday he would keep the board seat open because of the committee opposition, rather than nominate another candidate.

In an 8-5 vote, the Legislature’s Insurance and Financial Services Committee opposed the nomination of former Rep. Jon McKane to the Dirigo Health board. The vote followed a hearing dominated by discussion of McKane’s past comments that have been critical of both the Dirigo Health program and the people who support it.

McKane, a Republican from Newcastle, served four terms as a state representative and couldn’t run for re-election last year due to Maine’s term limits law. His nomination now goes to the full Senate, where two-thirds of senators would have to override the committee vote to approve the nomination.

It’s rare for a legislative committee to oppose a gubernatorial nomination, and it’s customary for a governor to withdraw a nomination a committee has rejected.

“It’s clear, Democrats chose to deny a highly qualified individual because of partisan politics,” LePage said in a statement. “If legislators don’t want to approve McKane then I’ll choose to keep that seat vacant.”

The Insurance and Financial Services Committee on Tuesday unanimously supported two other LePage nominations to the Dirigo board: former Republican Reps. Gary Reed of Falmouth and Wes Richardson of Warren. LePage had nominated Reed to serve another term on the board.

During McKane’s hearing, Democrats on the committee pointed to comments he made online and in opinion columns about supporters of the Dirigo program, male and female, whom he and others have called “Dirigirls,” and his description of a series of pro-Dirigo editorials in the Portland Press Herald in 2005 as an “all out jihad against any Dirigo health non-believers.”

“Do you think you can be a productive member of the board after those comments?” asked Rep. Henry Beck, D-Waterville.

McKane said his legislative experience and opposition to Dirigo could serve as an asset on the program’s nine-member board. He described the program as an “expensive experiment” that started out with “extremely questionable funding mechanisms.”

“It wasn’t thought out, it was extremely expensive and it wasn’t achieving its goals, and the press was not reporting that,” McKane said. “As a member of the committee, I could see the other side of that, so I took it upon myself [to write critical columns]. Were my words a little harsh at times? Yeah.”

He said the “Dirigirls” comment “was kind of a joke. I think it was taken as that.”

Dirigo Health, a signature initiative of Democratic former Gov. John 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.

The Dirigo program will end just as subsidies for small-group and individual insurance plans kick in under the federal Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration’s health care reform law. Joseph Bruno, the board’s chairman, told legislators the board will likely wrap up its business by March 2014.

Sen. Richard Woodbury, an independent from Yarmouth, said McKane’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act made him “skeptical” of his nomination because many who are covered under Dirigo Health programs will transition to insurance coverage newly available under the federal health care law.

McKane said he would like to see market-based reforms to Maine’s health care system.

“I would love to see a true catastrophic policy,” he said, referring to a bare-bones policy that would offer insurance coverage in extreme circumstances. “I would love to see that available for the people of Maine, one really low-ball, Chevrolet policy.”

McKane and those who spoke in support of his nomination touted his legislative experience and his opposition to Dirigo Health as a potential asset.

“I think Rep. McKane and his viewpoint can add a lot,” said Bruno, who added that McKane’s views could change as a board member. “I don’t think you want a homogenous board. I think you want someone who disagrees occasionally with how the board does things.”

But opponents of his nomination said McKane’s opposition to the Dirigo Health mission and his past comments about Dirigo Health and its supporters should disqualify him.

“By using the term at all, Mr. McKane was engaging in sexism,” Rachel Sukeforth of Litchfield said of the term “Dirigirls.” “For Mr. McKane to use his position of authority to spread this kind of sexism is an insult to this Legislature and the state of Maine.”

Dirigo Health also operates the Maine Quality Forum, the program’s research arm with a mission to collect data on health care quality in Maine and disseminate best practices in health care. Lawmakers on Tuesday encouraged board nominees and Bruno to determine how to continue the Quality Forum after the board dissolves.

Bruno said the Dirigo program has set aside some reserve funds so the Maine Quality Forum can continue. However, he said, lawmakers eventually will have to decide where to house the Quality Forum and other programs Dirigo Health operates.

McKane said the Maine Quality Forum has produced some positive results and that its research operation should continue. He also said the Dirigo Health program could serve as a model if Maine ever operates a state-based insurance exchange under the federal health care law, a move that LePage has so far resisted.

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