Legislators argue about Dirigo plan

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AUGUSTA – Supporters suggested Tuesday the future of Maine’s Dirigo Health program was at stake as lawmakers opened debate in advance of new rounds of voting on proposals to restructure its financing and administration.

Democrats fearful of Republican resistance were counting heads to see if – and, depending on who would be in attendance, when – they might muster House and Senate majorities.

On a first go-round in the House, opponents prevailed.

House Speaker John Richardson, D-Brunswick, told members that legislative action would lap over into another day.

On another front, two ranking Republican legislators wrote to Attorney General Steven Rowe asking if one pending referendum measure, which would sound out voters on tax relief options, ought to be paired with a ballot-bound proposal to promote tax and spending limitations.

While the proposal for an advisory referendum stalled, Rowe wrote back to say that the two questions would not create a statutory conflict.

The spending cap initiative, known as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, was routinely sent on to voters by the House and Senate, only after an extended debate in the Senate where 10 members signified support.

Earlier, discussions over new funding for highway projects that had pitted Democrats against Republicans appeared to come to an end.

“Fought the good fight. Did as much as we could do,” said Democratic Sen. Dennis Damon of Trenton, a co-chairman of the Transportation Committee.

It was all in a day’s work as the state Senate and House of Representatives resumed a drive toward final adjournment of the 2006 regular legislative session that left time for some late scheming.

Prior to final adjournment, “nothing is ever dead,” Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap observed.

The heavy presence of lobbyists in State House corridors and the House and Senate chambers provided a sure sign that many interests still regarded the stakes to be high in the closing debates and negotiations.

Before a three-week legislative recess that ended this week, deliberations on the Dirigo Health program had moved out of committee and come before the full Legislature.

The Insurance and Financial Affairs Committee voted 7-5 along party lines to approve what majority Democrats called a revised short-term funding plan.

The plan would cut a $44 million savings offset payment due from insurers to $23 million, while making available to the Dirigo Health Agency another $11 million that had been set aside as a potential cost cushion for Anthem Blue Cross-Blue Shield, whose contract with the state runs through this year.

The Dirigo Health Agency would also reduce its administrative expenses by $2 million from 2006 and proponents said the net effect would be to cover program costs into next year.

The Senate, which has a 19-16 Democratic majority, gave the new program funding plan all-but-final approval along party lines, mirroring the insurance panel’s action, at the end of April.

Maine Insurance Superintendent Alessandro Iuppa found last fall that Dirigo initiatives produced savings of $44 million in its first year. That decision has been under appeal by the Maine Association of Health Plans and other business organizations.

Dirigo Health, designed to provide access to health care for 130,000 uninsured and underinsured Mainers, became law in 2003.


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