AUGUSTA (AP) – Democratic legislative leaders said Tuesday there’s no reason why Gov. John Baldacci’s universal health care package can’t be enacted in the few weeks remaining in the session, but Republicans said too many questions need to be answered to rush the bill through this spring.

Majority Democrats set the proposal on the fast track as they announced the formation of a special committee just to review the governor’s plan to ensure health coverage for every Mainer within four years.

The Joint Select Committee on Health Care Reform will include 11 House members and four senators. They represent both parties and were selected from the existing committees on Health and Human Services, Insurance and Financial Services, and Appropriations.

“Some are saying things are moving too fast,” House Speaker Patrick Colwell of Gardiner said as he and Senate President Beverly Daggett of Augusta announced the committee.

But Colwell said the only thing moving too fast were the numbers of uninsured Mainers – now estimated at 180,000 – and of businesses that cannot afford policies to cover their employees.

Senate Majority Leader Sharon Treat, who will sponsor Baldacci’s bill, said universal health care has been studied year after year and the time for action is now.

Statutory adjournment is in mid-June but many lawmakers want the session to end by early June 1.

“I truly believe we can enact this plan this session to provide affordable access to health care to everyone in the state,” said Treat, D-Farmingdale, adding that “I will do everything in my power” to achieve that.

The co-chairs of the new committee, Sen. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, and Rep. Christopher O’Neil, D-Saco, said they too are committed to refining the Democratic governor’s bill and having it ready for legislative review this session.

“Time is a problem but it’s not an excuse,” said Brennan, adding, “No one thought we could pass a budget before April 1 either.”

Republican leaders said Baldacci’s 15-point proposal, which was still in drafting Tuesday, is too complex and raises too many weighty financial questions to rush through in a few weeks.

“I am not willing to take a piece of legislation of this magnitude on faith,” said House Minority Leader Joe Bruno, R-Raymond. He would prefer to see the matter studied in depth and taken up during next year’s session.

Bruno, who is familiar with health issues through his business, said many of the financial assumptions that prop up the bill seem to be overly optimistic. He also took issue with a key portion of the legislation, which seeks to redirect millions of dollars lost to bad debts and charity care for uninsured people to expanded insurance access.

Bruno said he does not view those losses as “a pile of cash,” but rather as unreimbursed services.

Senate Minority Leader Paul Davis agreed that it will be difficult to review the bill in the weeks left.

“I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it would be awfully rushed,” said Davis, R-Sangerville. Davis said he would prefer to have the bill studied by the full membership of all three committees rather than one.

The Maine People’s Alliance, a citizens’ activist group, joined those calling for action before June 1 and planned a news conference in Augusta on Wednesday where supporters will speak.

Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, which has 95 percent of the individual health insurance market in Maine, said it shares Baldacci’s goal of universal health care, but had not had time to review the details of his proposal.


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