SOUTH PORTLAND (AP) – The state and Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield have negotiated an agreement that will allow the state to begin offering its Dirigo universal health plan to uninsured residents of Maine this fall.

DirigoChoice could be on the market by Oct. 1 and providing benefits starting Jan. 1, 2005, officials said. Anthem was the lone bidder for the program, which seeks to provide low-cost health care coverage to about 40,000 in its first year.

“Today we mark a huge step toward our goal of universal access for all Maine people,” Gov. John Baldacci said in Monday’s release.

The Legislature last year authorized what is widely regarded as the most far-reaching state health care access program in the country. The initial startup date was July 1, but that was pushed back as state officials took more time than expected to design products to lure individuals and small businesses in an increasingly competitive small-group market.

Dirigo is designed to make health care accessible to the state’s 138,000 uninsured residents by 2009 through a public-private partnership. It will cover comprehensive medical services, including prescription drugs and hospital, physician and specialist visits.

Discounts will be given to members with household incomes up to three times the federal poverty level, or $27,930 a year for an individual and $56,550 for a household of four. Payments and deductibles will vary based on ability to pay.

Officials said Maine’s superintendent of insurance must approve the program’s rates and products, but that businesses should be able to get rate quotes and begin enrolling in October.

“We are pleased with the outcome of the negotiations,” said Jim Parker, Anthem’s general manager in Maine. “DirigoChoice will provide a comprehensive insurance product to low- and moderate-income people at an affordable price.”

Baldacci said he is confident Dirigo will contribute to a stronger overall economy by making health care less costly. He said Dirigo will reduce bad debt and charity care costs in Maine, which he said are up to $275 million a year.

“DirigoChoice will help Maine’s small businesses offer coverage to their employees and discounts will ensure it is affordable for employees,” he said.

With headquarters in Indianapolis, Anthem is the Blue Cross licensee in Maine and eight other states.

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