AUGUSTA – Maine lawmakers gave final approval Friday to a bill to create one of the nation’s most far-reaching health insurance plans.

Uncertain of holding the two-thirds majorities that would be required to have the bill take effect immediately, proponents in the Senate and House of Representatives stripped away emergency language so only simple majority votes were needed for passage.

Once that happened, super majorities materialized.

The final recorded vote in the 151-member House had 105 members voting in favor. Enactment in the Senate came on a tally of 25-8.

Without an emergency preamble, the measure’s effective date will be delayed by 90 days.

Lee Umphrey, spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci, said the governor was expected to hold a bill-signing ceremony next week.

Baldacci, a Democrat, made a promise of universal health care a central theme of his campaign for governor last fall.

The Dirigo Health plan, which was negotiated by a spectrum of interests during the past month, received unanimous bipartisan support of a special committee. Several amendments presented in the House and Senate were defeated after the bill received initial approval Thursday.

The bill would create a quasi-public agency to help people secure medical coverage for 180,000 Mainers through private insurers and expand eligibility for many through MaineCare, previously the state’s Medicaid program.

Baldacci would have preferred that the bill take effect immediately so a board and administrative structure for Dirigo could be set up and insurance timelines met, Umphrey said.

But the bill would stay substantially intact by removing the provision that it take effect immediately.

Dirigo Health would take effect in July 2004, and supporters say all Mainers would have access to coverage within five years.

Baldacci has pledged $52 million in one-time federal fiscal relief money to start up the program. It also depends on the recovery of tens of millions of dollars now lost to charity care and bad debt from those without coverage.

AP-ES-06-13-03 1723EDT

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