AUGUSTA — The Maine House gave final approval Thursday night to a Republican-backed health care overhaul bill aimed at encouraging competition and driving down premiums.
The party-line 78-68 House vote left only a final Senate enactment vote pending. It was unclear whether the Senate would take up the measure Thursday night.
The House rejected a string of Democratic-backed amendments amid a debate that spanned four hours. Republicans said the health insurance system needed to be fixed after years of oversight under Democratic leaders.
“The status quo wasn’t working,” said Rep. Jonathan McKane, R-Newcastle, said before the final vote. “We’re the most regulated insurance market in the country, and our premiums show it.”
Democrats, who have contended the bill was rushed through, offered a string of amendments addressing concerns such as travel to hospitals for treatment and disparities in rates. Democrats say rural and older residents will pay disproportionately higher rates if the bill passes.
Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, predicted the bill will “destroy the hospitals in rural Maine. Within two years … you will see the results.”
The bill includes market reforms to encourage more choice and competition to hold down health insurance costs in Maine.
A guaranteed access reinsurance program would make insurance affordable through subsidies for the chronically ill and those with pre-existing conditions. It would be funded by a tax on premiums of up to $4 per person per month for nearly all Maine policyholders.
Under the bill, no one could be denied health insurance or kicked off a plan because they get sick or have pre-existing conditions. Starting in 2014, Mainers buying individual insurance, not through employers, could buy policies from companies based in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Insurers would have more discretion in how much they can charge based on age, The bill repeals a rule limiting how far policyholders can be made to travel for treatments. But insurers would be barred from financially penalizing patients for going to hospitals close to where they live rather than to distant hospitals that may provide treatment for less money.
Hospitals would face fewer regulations before expanding.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage supports the bill, saying it will help small businesses by allowing those with fewer than 50 employees to band together to purchase insurance. He said well-intentioned regulations in the past have raised premiums and lowered choices for Maine health insurance.