AUGUSTA — Republican lawmakers in Augusta have long expressed a desire to overhaul how insurance is purchased in the state.
On Friday, the GOP took an unprecedented, and surprising, step toward fulfilling that wish.
In a move that infuriated Democrats, seven Republicans on the Legislature's Insurance Committee approved a bill that would repeal existing state insurance laws and replace them with an insurance program modeled after one currently used in Idaho.
Rep. Wesley Richardson, R-Warren, called the proposal a "benefit to the people of Maine," adding that the bill would make insurance more affordable by opening up interstate sale of policies, among other things.
Democrats and health advocates had a much different view, which led to a 7-4 approval along party lines.
Details of the bill were still being disseminated following the panel's decision to send it to the House for a vote. That's because the specifics were contained in a 29-page amendment that wasn't made public until Friday morning.
The last-minute introduction of the proposal riled Democrats, who accused Republicans of forcing a vote without sufficiently vetting the bill or obtaining analysis from the state Bureau of Insurance.
Republicans rebuffed Democrats' attempt to table the vote.
"I've been a committee chair since 1982," Sen. Joseph Brannigan, D-Portland, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said. "And I've never seen anything ramrodded through committee without facts, discussion and public input. We were handed more than three inches of paper, including five-year-old data from another state. We had no time to read it — never mind time to understand the impact this will have on people's lives."
Republicans on the committee rejected those claims, saying all the elements of the proposal had been discussed over the years, in one form or another.
In response to criticism by Brannigan that Republicans weren't giving Democrats a chance to review it and offer a compromise, Rep. Jonathan McKane, R-Newcastle, said, "You've got all weekend to study it."
Earlier in the work session, McKane said it wouldn't make any difference if Democrats had time to review the specifics because they'd reject it.
"Every aspect of this bill has been vetted over the last 10 years," he said. "We all know this stuff. It's time to pass it."
Richardson sponsored the original bill, LD 1333, and the amendment that effectively replaced it with a consolidation of seven other interstate insurance bills.
He said the bill had received significant input from insurance companies.
That the insurance industry played a significant role in drafting the bill unsettled Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell.
"It appears that the majority party on the committee had no interest in anything except a bill they developed in secret in partnership with the insurance industry," she said in a release.
The Maine Chamber of Commerce was not involved in the bill's drafting. The state's largest business advocate had previously testified against several of the interstate insurance bills introduced earlier this month, saying they could create "winners and losers" in the business community.
A representative for the chamber declined to comment on the latest proposal.
Other health groups said the bill appears to violate portions of the federal health care law.
"This rewrites all the health insurance laws in the state," Mitchell Stein, the policy director with Consumers for Affordable Health Care, said. "It scraps fundamental things in consumer protections, rate regulations and a foundation that's been built up over the last 20 years. This changes everything."
Andy MacLean, with the Maine Medical Association, characterized the bill as a GOP push for a political victory.
He said the victory could be short-lived.
"If they (Republicans) want to make this kind of a statement, statements are important, I guess," MacLean said. "But it seems like an unnecessary retrenchment when, unless things change through the courts, this state, along with all the others, is going to be implementing the ACA."
Tarren Bragdon, the outgoing CEO of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, said that he was one of several stakeholders who offered input on the amendment.
Bragdon, a former senior transition adviser for Gov. Paul LePage, has long advocated for health insurance reform, and MHPC is a fierce opponent of the federal health care law.
He said the bill would make insurance more affordable for Mainers.
Currently the state offers insurance to all individuals, or guaranteed issue. Other states can refuse coverage and force people into a high-risk pool.
Idaho, Bragdon said, offers guaranteed issue for an individual's original insurance carrier. He said the Idaho plans were more affordable because some individuals would receive reimbursement, or subsidies, for claims.
Stein, with Consumers for Affordable Health Care, said the only way to fund the high-risk pool is a surcharge on those currently insured.
Stein worried the bill will force premiums so high that more Mainers will be uninsured.
Democrats had an equally gloomy outlook.
"From what we do know, this proposal hurts small businesses, rural Mainers, the chronically ill and anyone over 50 who is not yet eligible for Medicare," Treat said.
The bill has the early backing of the LePage administration, which had originally planned to submit an insurance overhaul through another regulatory reform proposal.
Kathleen Newman, LePage's deputy chief of staff, said Friday that the proposal may not be necessary if LD 1333 is successful.
(This story was updated to delete a reference to the Dirigo Health program)