AUGUSTA — The most controversial part of a larger proposal to help lower some health care costs in Maine was removed by lawmakers during a committee meeting Monday.
The measure emerged late in the legislative session as a recommendation of an advisory council focused on payment reforms and received about three hours of testimony during a public hearing last week.
The most debated portion of the proposal would have allowed hospitals and other health care providers to merge under a shorter and scaled-down regulatory process. Currently, that process is only available for mergers of more than two hospitals with each other or more than two health care providers with each other, but not a hospital with a health care provider. Though the legislation was not aimed at any specific institutions, it would most immediately affect a current merger already under way.
Maine Health, parent company of Portland’s Maine Medical Center, has applied under the current regulatory structure to merge with two Maine cardiology groups. Their representatives urged lawmakers to adopt the new measure that would allow them to reapply under the new, expedited process. But opponents, including representatives of Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, said the merger would result in a monopoly on cardiac care and potentially increase costs for Mainers.
Several lawmakers said they might be inclined to support the pending merger, but were concerned with re-writing such significant legislation at the end of the session.
“This requires very artful legislation, which cannot be done in one day,” said state Rep. Edward Legg, D-Kennebunk.
State Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, House chairwoman of the Insurance and Financial Services Committee, said she felt uncomfortable supporting the change.
“Current law does not cover this particular proposed merger. I don’t know when this process started, but I don’t know why this wasn’t brought before us before,” she said. “This vote does not necessarily reflect a permanent decision that we are opposed to the concept before us.”
The one lawmaker who voted to include the new language, state Rep. Les Fossel, R-Alna, said he was frustrated by the testimony at the public hearing.
“There seems to be sort of a food fight between these two sides. It’s hard for me to figure out what’s best for the state of Maine,” he said. “I can understand what one side thinks is best for them and what the other side thinks is best for them, but there seems to be no interest at all in getting together a stakeholders group and trying to figure out what’s best for the state of Maine. I am very unhappy with what’s happened here.”
The measure faces further votes in the full Legislature.