Dirigo shift dead

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AUGUSTA – Two Democratic defections in the state Senate doomed compromise legislation that would have allowed DirigoChoice, the state’s attempt to provide universal health care, to reorganize and to temporarily avoid a legal fight over its funding.

Combined with a united Republican caucus, state Sens. Lynn Bromley, D-South Portland, and Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, defeated a bill that would have allowed the state to self-insure DirigoChoice, a move supporters say would make the health insurance plan more efficient and affordable.

Democrats have been stymied by thinner-than-normal majorities this week as members have been drawn away and the length of the workdays have put physical and emotional stresses on lawmakers who weren’t expecting to be in session so late into May.

An attempt to pass the self-insurance bill, L.D. 1845, failed in the House when one member wasn’t available for the vote, leaving it to the Senate to resurrect it.

When the bill died in the Senate, Democrats in the House could no longer muster the votes to pass companion legislation, L.D. 1935, which would have settled a legal battle surrounding the health insurance’s funding until at least next year.

Multiple sources, both inside and out of the Democratic caucus, said that the Dirigo bills became entangled in another piece of legislation that’s awaiting the governor’s signature. Bromley and Schneider were major proponents for L.D. 1481, which places new limits on the amount of time communities and their residents have to reconsider zoning rules after a building permit has been issued.

The bill, which divided Democrats in the House and Senate, eventually won passage, but not before a lengthy and loud fight in which multiple attempts to scuttle it failed.

During the fighting, the Attorney General’s Office issued an advisory ruling that suggested the way the bill was being passed could make it unconstitutional and open it up for legal challenges.

Despite the positive outcome in the Legislature, the information from the AG, along with the points made in the debate, has given Gov. John Baldacci pause. He has said only that he is looking into the bill and hasn’t made a decision on whether to sign it or veto it.

According to the sources, who were not willing to speak on the record, the two senators tried to use the slim Democratic majority in the Senate to pressure the governor into signing L.D. 1481.

When he balked, the sources said, they voted against the Dirigo self-insurance bill, essentially killing both bills.

When asked about the situation, Schneider said that she “doesn’t like to confirm or deny rumors.”

“Personally, I would like to see a universal health care initiative,” Schneider said. “The bill could have been a lot stronger. … I have lots of questions about the bill.”

She also pointed out that the bill was defeated in the House before ever making it to the Senate, illustrating the problems with the legislation. She said she still supports L.D. 1935, which passed in the Senate last month with her support, and would have voted for it again if it hadn’t been killed.

Messages left for Bromley in the Senate Majority Office were not returned Wednesday night.

Senate President Beth Edmonds, talking after the event had played out on the floor, was careful in answering how things went down.

“The two senators certainly chose not to support the Dirigo bills,” Edmonds said, followed by a pause. “And they are unhappy with the governor on another bill.”

Republicans, for their part, seemed willing to watch the fray among Democrats.

“I’m pleased that both the bills went down the tubes,” said Senate Minority Leader Paul Davis, R-Sangerville. “I like to think when the Legislature passes or doesn’t pass a bill, it’s the collective judgment of the people who saw the wisdom or the fallacy in it.”

Without the two pieces of legislation, DirigoChoice will remain unchanged for the near term and lawsuits over $43.7 million in payments the state says it is owed by insurance companies will continue. L.D. 1935 would have settled the dispute with a negotiated $23 million payment and the formation of a commission that would study alternative payment methods.

As it became clear that the Legislature would not pass Dirigo-related legislation before adjourning, the governor’s office began working on an executive order moving forward.

Reached at the Blaine House Wednesday night, Baldacci said that he would form a blue ribbon commission to consider the structure and finances of Dirigo, and that if it could come up with good solutions, he would be willing to call the Legislature back into a special session to consider them.

Trish Riley, the director of the Governor’s Office of Health Policy and Finance, said that Dirigo will continue and there will be no change in coverage for its roughly 10,000 participants.

“We’re going forward,” Riley said. “We’re going to find a way one way or another to improve Dirigo.”

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