Maine lawmakers question Idaho’s insurance results

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AUGUSTA — Democratic lawmakers opposed to a Republican bill that seeks to overhaul Maine’s health insurance market say the Idaho law the Maine measure is modeled on isn’t working out West.

Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, raised the issue late Wednesday night during a more than three-hour Maine Senate debate on LD 1333.

The legislation, which would change the way Mainers can buy insurance, was passed in the House and sent to the Senate for final passage Thursday. But late Thursday, the Senate had recessed and it was unclear when the bill would be taken up for a final vote.

A key complaint of Democratic opponents is that the Legislature did not take the time to carefully study the bill or fully analyze its impact. Craven said that while lawmakers supportive of changes where quick to point to Idaho as a model, they were not as quick to look at how that state’s law was working out for its residents.

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“I think they looked at the model, but they didn’t look at the outcome and that was the most disturbing thing,” Craven said Thursday.

David Irwin, director of communications and government affairs for AARP in Idaho, said Thursday his state’s law had done little to ease insurance premiums for the state’s oldest residents.

“Insurance rates are going up in Idaho just as fast as they are in other parts of the country,” Irwin said.  A recent AARP survey in that state of 400 residents over 50 showed the cost of health care and rising health insurance premiums was the top financial concern for 40 percent of respondents.

“Insurance rates in Idaho have continued to soar,” Irwin said in a phone interview. “I would not hold our model for regulating the insurance industry up as a model that should be followed by other states. We have work to do here in order to ensure all these groups have access to affordable health care.”

Idaho has about 1.5 million residents and 234,100 people without insurance, Irwin said. For the ages of 19 to 64, there are 189,200 without insurance.

Maine has a population of about 1.3 million and an estimated 133,000 without health insurance. That number has been a rallying cry for both Democrats and Republicans as they’ve worked on policies to help more people in Maine gain coverage.

But even with the reforms in Idaho, the numbers of uninsured have not decreased significantly and premium rates have gone up, especially for the elderly in rural parts of the state, Irwin said.

“They don’t have protection from rising insurance premiums,” Irwin said. He said those growing expenses, coupled with other problems facing older populations, had a compounding effect on AARP members.

“It is a growing concern, especially as older Americans and older Idahoans continue to deal with disappearing pensions, shrinking retirement payments and no Social Security (cost-of-living-adjustments.),” Irwin said.

That’s been a chief concern of Democratic lawmakers in Maine, who agree the Republican-backed legislation does appear to lower premium costs for younger adults, but they say it would do so by allowing insurance companies to charge older Mainers more — in some cases, three times what they may be paying now.

“This bill is bad news for many Mainers,” Craven told her colleagues Wednesday night. “Some people will see their rates go down and that’s good for them, and I’m really happy that we can improve that for younger people. We did discriminate against younger people before this bill, but we are now discriminating against older people.”

Craven also raised the issue this week of why the funding for the program, which includes a $4-per-month fee for almost all privately insured Mainers, was not being assessed against the largest employee insurance pools, including state-government workers and lawmakers, who would see no rate change as a result of the legislation.

Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland, said she supported the measure because she believes the market-based approach of lowering rates for young people will mean more people overall carrying the load and a larger pool of insured Mainers.

The legislation would mean rates would go down for all Mainers in time, Snowe-Mello said earlier this week.

sthistle@sunjournal.com

Key provisions of the LD 1333

* Allows out-of-state insurance companies to sell insurance here, as long as those companies are based in New England, beginning in 2014.

* Allows insurance companies to more greatly vary their rates based on a person’s age and where the customer lives, beginning in 2012.

* Allows insurance companies to offer financial incentives — such as no co-payment or a reduced deductible — to Mainers who use a hospital that the insurance company has deemed to be higher quality and lower cost than others.

* Establishes a reinsurance association that reimburses insurance companies for some of the costs associated with the health care claims of high-risk Mainers. That money would come from an assessment on insurance companies.

* Eliminates the Advisory Council on Health Systems Development, a 20-member group that administers the state health plan and reports on health insurance issues that affect Maine.

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