AUGUSTA (AP) – The Dirigo Health bill, which sets into motion a program to make health insurance available to the 180,000 Mainers who can’t afford it, received preliminary legislative approval Thursday.

Without a word of debate, the House gave initial approval to a bill that was the subject of intense committee negotiations. Senators approved the bill after scuttling an amendment advanced by critics who see the Dirigo bill as a step toward socialized medicine.

A final House vote was expected Thursday night.

A companion measure that seeks to protect the Fund for a Healthy Maine from raids for non-health programs succeeded in an early vote, but failed to win the two-thirds majority it needed for final House passage and awaited further action.

The fund includes millions of dollars Maine has received as part of a settlement of states’ lawsuits against tobacco companies.

A proposed constitutional amendment would ensure that the money is used only for health promotion and disease prevention.

Supporters say the tobacco settlement money was intended to be used for health purposes only.

“This is not the taxpayers’ dollars,” House Speaker Patrick Colwell, D-Gardiner, said after leaving the rostrum to defend the bill.

Others said they were leery of any law that restricts their ability to allocate state funds.

“This constitutional amendment binds our hands to new programs and new spending,” said Rep. Kevin Glynn, R-South Portland. The House’s 90-55 vote fell seven votes short of the number needed to send the proposed amendment to voters.

The bill to create a universal health care system would create a quasi-public Dirigo Health, which would secure coverage through private insurers, while expanding eligibility under MaineCare.

The MaineCare income eligibility standards would expand to $11,225 for individuals and to $24,240 for parents with MaineCare eligible children.

Dirigo Health, which would take effect in July 2004, would also make health coverage available through participating employers, who would pay up to 60 percent of each employee’s premium costs.

The bill also includes provisions to hold down the rising costs of medical care, including a freeze on new facilities and voluntary caps for hospitals, doctors and insurers on operating margins.

It also includes quality-care safeguards.

Supporters call Dirigo Health the nation’s most far-reaching universal health care bill. The program would take effect in July 2004.

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