Looking for a deal on Dirigo

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AUGUSTA – With time running out on the Legislature, lawmakers are continuing with their efforts to negotiate a truce that would allow DirigoChoice, the state’s attempt at universal health care, to survive into next year intact.

According to Speaker of the House John Richardson, lawmakers are negotiating with the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Hospital Association and Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, which administers the insurance plan, to find a solution. The group met most recently on Wednesday.

When the Legislature returns from its break next week, two controversial Dirigo bills are on the schedule. Negotiators hope to reach a deal before then.

The first bill would prohibit insurance companies from passing on to their customers a $44 million assessment that’s intended to fund Dirigo for next year. Called the Savings Offset Payment, or the “Dirigo tax” by its deriders, the assessment is based upon the amount of money the state says insurance companies have saved because of Dirigo. The Chamber of Commerce, Maine Hospital Association and the Maine Association of Health Plans have sued the state, disputing the amount of savings.

The second bill would allow the state to divorce DirigoChoice from the private insurance industry and allow the state to take over and administer the insurance plan.

Both bills are supported by Gov. John Baldacci, who launched Dirigo as part of a comprehensive plan to expand access to health insurance after his election in 2002.

During a meeting with reporters Thursday, Richardson outlined the grounds for a compromise that might be able to avoid the showdown next week.

For the deal to advance, Richardson said he had three guiding principals: Any short-term funding fix could not include money from the state’s General Fund; there would have to be enough money dedicated to Dirigo to insure at least 21,000 people; and the agreement would have to guarantee that Dirigo will remain viable at least through the first quarter of next year, when a study commission, which would also be created, would make recommendations on how best to fund the program.

“I would be open, at this stage, to any funding source so long as it’s not General Fund monies,” Richardson said. “We want to build on the success of Dirigo. Everyone who’s at the table believes that Dirigo has been a success. They have certain issues with the funding sources and we’ve indicated that we would create a blue ribbon commission that would look to a more diversified funding source moving forward.”

A full-page ad published Wednesday in some Maine newspapers asked readers to call their state representatives and tell them to fix Dirigo. The ad, paid for by the chamber, Maine Hospital Association and the Maine Association of Health Plans, outlined the groups’ demands for a compromise: a study commission to evaluate Dirigo, a “more equitable” replacement for the Savings Offset Payment and a reduction in health insurance spending of $28 million.

Messages left with the chamber and the Maine Hospital Association were not returned Thursday.

A spokesman for Anthem confirmed Wednesday’s meeting, but would not discuss details.

“We’ve made proposals back and forth to each other,” Richardson said. “I think we’re closing in on either a final decision to reach an agreement or not. But I remain still very hopeful (that) we can work out something at the very end here that can accommodate all parties.”

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