AUGUSTA — A spokesman for Gov.-elect Paul LePage said Wednesday that the incoming governor will have a comprehensive plan to replace Dirigo Health and rejected criticism that the new administration's plan to kill the program would benefit insurance companies.
Dan Demeritt, LePage's press secretary, said details of the governor-elect's health care plan were still being discussed. However, proponents of Dirigo Health said LePage's intent to abolish the program would likely benefit insurance companies while removing consumer protections.
LePage and GOP candidates repeatedly blasted Dirigo on the campaign trail. The governor-elect has vowed to repeal it and to fight the national health care bill.
The governor-elect's health care strategy has drawn increased attention since Tarren Bragdon, CEO of the conservative think tank Maine Heritage Policy Center and a co-chairman on LePage's transition team, told the New York Times that "Dirigo will be Diri-gone."
The Maine People's Alliance, an organization that advocates for universal, or single-payer, health care, said in a press release that Bragdon's comments were dismissive of the 14,000 Mainers currently insured by Dirigo.
"It's a sad sight to see Bragdon and LePage being so flippant about the health care of thousands of Mainers," said Jennie Pirkl. "It's not a surprise, though. Anthem has bought this administration and they're going to make sure they get their money's worth."
Pirkl referred to campaign-finance disclosure reports showing that Anthem, one of the state's health care providers, used its parent company, WellPoint, to influence health care legislation in Maine and nationally by spending more than $1.4 million to elect Republican governors and legislators.
Campaign-finance reports compiled by the Center of Responsive Politics show WellPoint donated nearly $1 million to the Republican Governors Association political action committee. PAC disclosures with the state ethics commission show the RGA spent more than $1.2 million in the Maine governor's race.
Disclosure forms also show WellPoint was a significant contributor to the Republican State Leadership Committee, a Karl Rove-backed PAC that pumped $400,000 into Maine to defeat Democrats running for the state Senate.
In 2011, Republicans will control both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in decades.
Demeritt rejected the MPA's claims that Anthem and WellPoint had bought influence with LePage.
"All I can say is that it was a bad investment if that's what Anthem did," Demeritt said, adding that LePage wants to increase competition for insurance companies, not favor one over another.
But Pirkl said the governor-elect's plan to scrap Dirigo doubled as a payout to Anthem.
"Eliminating DirigoChoice would mean an immediate $40 million handout to the insurance companies and it would put many of those enrolled in the program on MaineCare, costing the state millions," she said.
Demeritt said that anything done with Dirigo would be part of a comprehensive package that would make insurance more affordable.
"Gov. Paul LePage understands that the whole health insurance system is a big-picture question," Demeritt said. "It's not a Dirigo-or-not-Dirigo question."
"(LePage) is going to be very thoughtful in his approach," Demeritt said. "He understands a lot of people use the program now. He's not going to do anything with Dirigo until we have a plan in place that is better."
Demeritt was responding for Bragdon, who during a Nov. 5 press conference was described by LePage as his transition team's expert on health care policy.
Bragdon, 34, has written several position papers and op-ed pieces critical of Dirigo and the national health care law for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free-market think tank with ties to a national network reportedly funded by corporate donors.
Bragdon's comments in the New York Times have elicited a strong reaction from the Maine People's Alliance and Democrats who support Dirigo and the national health care law.
Demeritt was vague about LePage's plans to deal with the national health care law. The governor-elect has publicly stated that he believes the law is unconstitutional and has vowed to become one of at least 20 states that will fight its implementation.
So far, the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear at least one state's legal challenge to the law, and some national pundits believe it will be difficult for the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives to defund it.
However, several reports have indicated that Republican governors could do the most to hold up the law's implementation by refusing to enact local legislation to set up the complicated insurance exchanges that must be in place by 2014.
The law also requires appointed state commissioners to help implement the law. In Maine, that duty rests with the commissioner of the Governor's Office of Health Policy and Finance. The office was set up by Gov. John Baldacci in 2003 to help administer Dirigo. Its role has grown to include implementation of the national health care law.
Because the office was created by executive order, LePage could effectively eliminate it without approval of the Legislature after he's sworn in Jan. 10.
Demeritt declined to say whether LePage would appoint a commissioner to the office.
"(The office is) being considered in its totality," Demeritt said. "I don't want to be any more specific than that because we're still working it."