AUGUSTA — The Maine House of Representatives today gave initial approval to a Republican bill containing sweeping changes to the state's health insurance laws. The bill now moves to the Senate.
The 76-72 vote broke directly on party lines.
The decision followed a lengthy partisan debate during which Democrats blasted Republicans for fast-tracking a proposal that transformed a four-page bill modifying community rating into a 45-page overhaul of insurance regulations.
Republicans defended the plan, saying allowing out-of-state insurers to sell plans here would drive down premiums and create more consumer choice. They also pushed back against Democratic claims that the legislation wasn't publicly vetted.
Rep. Jonathan McKane, R-Newcastle, responded to the criticism by saying he wished Dirigo Health, the Democrat-backed state health plan, had received the same calls for additional scrutiny.
McKane said Democrats had previous attempts to reform state insurance laws.
"We all knew these reforms were coming," McKane said.
McKane also refuted statements that the bill would increase premiums for older Mainers and those living in rural areas. He said there are provisions that determine how much an insurance company can charge a younger person versus an older person. The ratio in the bill, he said, was identical to that in the federal Affordable Care Act.
But Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, said the proposal hadn't received the proper analysis, citing late review by the Bureau of Insurance that prompted last-minute changes in the bill because provisions violated federal law.
Treat likened the process to buying a used car.
"LD 1333 was rushed off the lot so fast the bondo patching hadn't even dried," Treat said.
She added, "This bill just isn't ready for prime time. It picks winners and losers and pits north versus south and healthy versus the sick."
Rep. Mike Bryant, D-Windham, said Thursday's vote marked a sad day for the Legislature.
"We spent more time on whoopie pies than this bill," Bryant said.
Republican lawmakers were mostly silent during the floor debate.
Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said he understood that Republicans were "committed to voting blindly for a bill that no one has read." He acknowledged that insurance reform was a GOP campaign issue, but he warned against following through on a campaign promise to support a flawed bill.
Martin also suggested that GOP support of the bill would come back to haunt them in 2012.
"From a political point of view I hope you vote for the bill," Martin said. "Because I will be happy to go to your communities . . . and have regional meetings to discuss your vote."
On Wednesday, the day before the House vote, the Insurance Committee made several language changes following a preliminary analysis by the Bureau of Insurance.
Noting that it didn't have the time to conduct a more thorough review, the bureau found that the bill violated some federal regulations, including provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
The bureau's analysis was sent to committee members late Tuesday night. A final version of the bill was posted on the Legislature's website late Wednesday night.
The nonprofit group Consumers for Affordable Health Care last week issued the same concerns later raised by the bureau, following the committee's surprising vote on a late amendment that transformed a four-page bill modifying community rating regulations into a 29-page repeal and rewrite of the state's insurance laws.
The bill was 45 pages following the committee's language review on Wednesday.