Lawmakers rework insurance bill as rancor ensues, House vote looms

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AUGUSTA — Amid a partisan melee that had the Maine Republican Party ripping into one of its own members, a legislative panel on Wednesday spent the afternoon reworking a Republican bill containing sweeping changes to the state’s health insurance laws.

The GOP has fast-tracked the bill despite objections from Democrats and health advocates who said the changes were “ramrodded” without sufficient public vetting or independent analysis.

Republicans countered that the proposal was nothing new to lawmakers, or Democrats. They said LD 1333 was designed to lower health insurance premiums by allowing out-of-state insurers to sell lower-cost plans here. 

On Wednesday, the day before the Maine House of Representatives was expected to vote on the GOP measure, the Insurance Committee made several language changes following a preliminary analysis by the Bureau of Insurance.

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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 analysis was sent to committee members late Tuesday night.

The nonprofit group Consumers for Affordable Health Care last week echoed the bureau’s concerns, 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 a rewrite of the state’s insurance laws.

The bill was 45 pages following the committee’s language review on Wednesday.

Consumers for Affordable Health Care said last week the bill would deny coverage to individuals with pre-existing conditions and would drive up costs for the elderly and rural Mainers. The assertions prompted a sharp response from the Maine Republican Party that illustrated the partisan furor generated by the proposal.

On Wednesday the Maine GOP issued an action alert saying Consumers for Affordable Health Care was spreading “false claims that prey on the fears of the elderly and chronically ill.”

The GOP alert urged Mainers to contact the group’s communications director, Greg White, who the party described as a “left-wing bully.”

White said he’s a registered Republican. He interned for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and was a legislative assistant for U.S. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. He said Wednesday that he voted for Republican Steve Abbott in last year’s gubernatorial primary. He still has an Abbott bumper sticker on his car.

White said he called Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine GOP, seeking an apology.

Webster told the Sun Journal on Wednesday that he didn’t know White.

“Why would he be promoting a left-of-center viewpoint if he’s a Republican?” Webster said. “I don’t know what kind of Republican he is to go out and suggest these things. … This is not what Republicans believe in.”

Democrats have also gone on the offensive. The Maine Democratic Party on Wednesday described the GOP insurance proposal as a “sneak attack.”

“If this was something the GOP could be proud of, it wouldn’t have been pushed through in secret and without any public input,” said Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant.

He said the GOP has “ceded their responsibility as policymakers to the insurance industry and to the conservative ideologues at the Maine Heritage Policy Center.”

The Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank, was one of several stakeholders that helped craft the bill, according to Tarren Bragdon, the organization’s CEO.

The center on Wednesday released its own action alert urging its members to support the insurance overhaul. The group said the bill would result in more coverage options and lower insurance costs.

Others weren’t so sure.

Trish Riley, former head of the Office of Health Policy and Finance under Gov. John Baldacci, said Republicans’ desire to lower insurance costs were laudable. However, she worried that the party’s approach would come at the expense of consumer protections.

“There is a way to (lower costs) without completely dismantling the consumer protections in Maine law,” Riley said.

The nonpartisan Maine Health Management Coalition, which represents public and private businesses and doctors, has withheld judgment on LD 1333. According to Elizabeth Mitchell, that’s because the group hasn’t had time to review the proposal.

“I think there may have been some support for changes in the initial amendment, but there hasn’t been time to consider them,” Mitchell said. “The process has been such that we were just not informed.”

She added, “Without a thorough process and without the time to consider the positions of our different constituencies, it’s very hard to tell if this bill accomplishes what it sets out to.”

Republican lawmakers meanwhile appear steadfast in their support of the bill. They said Democrats shouldn’t be surprised at the bill’s contents considering it’s modeled after a bill introduced two years ago by Saco Democratic Rep. Donald Pilon.

Pilon’s bill suffered narrow defeats in the House and Senate.

The insurance overhaul has triggered raucous partisan rhetoric reminiscent of campaign season.

“It’s the biggest flash point I’ve seen so far,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. “There seems to have been a fair amount of bipartisanship on the budget, along with some of the environmental regulations. But here there seems to be a pretty intense partisan battle.”

Brewer wondered whether the GOP’s decision to fast-track the proposal was designed to head off or minimize the inevitable progressive opposition.

“If you’re the Republicans and you’re pretty damn sure you’ve got the votes, maybe you just get it through and claim the credit after,” Brewer said. “It’s not a terrible strategy.”

Brewer added, “I’m surprised there’s not a little more time being spent (explaining the bill). It very well could be a good policy, but I don’t know if anybody knows that.”

smistler@sunjournal.com

(This story was updated to clarify Greg White’s positions with U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.)

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