LEWISTON — Maine Gov. Paul LePage may have closed the door on the state setting up its own health insurance exchange, but state lawmakers, especially Democrats, aren't ruling out the possibility.
Even some members of LePage's Republican Party said Friday a bipartisan bill that sets up an exchange in Maine might be possible for the upcoming 126th session of the Legislature, which starts in January.
Incoming House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said Friday he had no intention of authoring a bill to set up an exchange, but he anticipated at least one such bill to come before the next Legislature.
The federal government has set a date for states to decide whether to set up their own exchanges or allow the federal government to do it. Fredette said he didn't believe there was anything in the law that prevented states from setting up their own exchanges even after that date passes.
"This is not a drop-dead date," he said.
The law says states must decide whether to set up exchanges or to let the federal government step in and do it for them. Initially, Maine had until Friday to decide, though U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced Thursday that the deadline was extended to Dec. 14.
Under federal law, it appears Maine would not be able to set up its own exchange until 2014, but legislation to do that could be passed in 2013.
Fredette said Maine Democrats and Republicans earlier this year passed health insurance reforms that were supported by bipartisan votes and he didn't see why they might not find a way to compromise on an exchange, as well.
Most lawmakers have agreed it would be better to have state control of the exchange, especially one that would be largely funded by the federal government.
"I think that any bill that comes forward on this will be treated with fairness and objectivity and would be given the full public process of going before the various committees, and so forth," Fredette said.
He said it would be "far too early to speculate" on whether Republicans would stand with Democrats to override any potential LePage veto of legislation that sets up an insurance exchange for Maine.
LePage said Friday he decided to let the federal government set up a health insurance exchange, rather than have the state design the program that's part of the national Affordable Care Act.
Reiterating points he made in a letter a day earlier to Sebelius, LePage said that without knowing more details about the cost and nature of state-based exchanges, Maine could be placed in the position of serving as the administrator of a new federal health care bureaucracy over which the state had little control.
LePage wrote that the health care overhaul law championed by President Barack Obama "has severe legal problems, is bad policy and overreaches into the lives and pocketbooks of fellow Americans."
Exchanges are online marketplaces where consumers can shop for insurance, compare prices and determine which policy best fits their needs.
Many states had put off a decision until after the Nov. 6 election, since Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had said he would move to repeal the 2010 law, which is overwhelmingly opposed by most Republican politicians.
"The ACA is full of federal mandates; as such, even a state-based health insurance exchange is actually controlled by the federal government," LePage wrote. "In the end, a state exchange puts the burden onto the states and the expense onto our taxpayers, without giving the state the authority and flexibility we must have to best meet the needs of the people of Maine."
LePage is one of 21 governors attending a Republican Governors Association conference who signed a letter to Sebelius asking for six critical changes in the health care exchange requirement. But LePage made it clear that Maine is not setting one up.
"I'm not lifting a finger," LePage told Bloomberg News at the RGA meeting in Las Vegas. "We're not going to get involved. We're going to let Mr. Obama do a federal exchange. It's his bill."
Legislative leaders in the recently elected Democratic majority were quick to note that Maine's options are obvious and insisted Friday that the state would be remiss not to build its own exchange.
Democrats also said they fully expect any state law setting up an exchange would be bipartisan.
"Health care is too big an issue for either party to solve on its own," said state Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston.
She said statements like the ones LePage made this week were not going to be part of the solution.
"By digging in his heels, he isn't helping the people of Maine get access to affordable health care," Rotundo said. "By digging in his heels, he cuts off that opportunity for all of us to work together and we should all have the same goal of maximizing opportunities for people to access affordable health care."
Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, said she was optimistic lawmakers from both parties would be able to craft legislation on the exchange and other items that would help Maine fully implement the federal law.
Treat has been the ranking Democrat on the Legislature's Insurance and Financial Services Committee and would be a likely candidate to chair the committee in 2013.
Logistically, she said, she didn't believe the state had time to get an exchange operational by October 2013, as required by law. Treat said it was likely, given LePage's stance on the issue, that Maine would start out with the federal exchange.
She said Fredette is correct in suggesting there will be opportunties for Maine to implement its own exchange in the future and in fact believes the federal government may prefer that.
"The governor's comments that he would do nothing and perhaps obstruct things won't prevent us from moving forward," Treat said. She said that with enough Republican support in the Legislature, "the fact that (LePage) is not interested in implementing an exchange may be less important."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.