AUGUSTA – Bruce Clark, who owns a water testing company in Auburn, was paying up to $800 a month for health insurance for himself and his wife until the early 1990s, when he cut off his coverage because it was too expensive.

Clark, who enjoys good health, went without insurance until New Year’s Day, when Maine’s new DirigoChoice program began covering him and 1,800 other enrollees.

“I couldn’t wait” to sign up, said Clark, who is now paying $270 for his coverage. “I think (Governor) John Baldacci, he’s got the program. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.”

Clark, whose wife is not covered under his policy, was among more than a dozen people flanking Baldacci on Monday to tout DirigoChoice. The plan was created through legislation passed in 2003 with hopes of providing access to health care coverage to 130,000 Mainers who lack it.

Since then, 2,700 Mainers, nearly 1,100 of them sole proprietors like Clark or owners of other small businesses, have applied for DirigoChoice, which “offers real solutions, not a 30-second sound byte,” Baldacci said. “These are real people, real businesses, real coverage.”

House Republican leaders said the current enrollment levels are off pace, especially in the area of employer participation. As of Monday, 216 businesses were participating.

Republicans said that with employer premiums running below expectations, they are concerned about the new program’s impact on the state budget.

“There are some serious financial questions that must be addressed due to the anemic employer participation in Dirigo Health,” said Assistant House GOP Leader Josh Tardy. “We look forward to a full explanation on how the Dirigo legislation will be altered in order to keep the program solvent.”

Baldacci administration officials acknowledge that the 1,800 new card-carrying members fall well below the goal of 31,000 by the year’s end, but say the latter number may have been unrealistically high. Baldacci noted that 900 more people are expected to be enrolled in the program by Feb. 1.

Asked to respond to criticism that the new program is not affordable enough for many would-be subscribers, the governor said proof to the contrary stood behind him. He added that DirigoChoice is a little cheaper than other policies, but offers more coverage.

The administration hopes the state program will draw more competition among private health insurance carriers into Maine’s market, giving consumers more choices and driving down premiums, Baldacci spokesman Lee Umphrey said. DirigoChoice is offered through Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield of Maine and can be purchased through Anthem-licensed agents.

Despite criticisms by some, notably the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, DirigoChoice is working for many businesses, include Inn By The Sea in Cape Elizabeth.

Maureen McQuade said 100 percent of the inn’s employees are participating in DirigoChoice, up from the 40 percent who participated in the company’s health plan. “This has made a difference for the inn,” said McQuade.

The co-owner of a Caribou flower shop who was not present for Baldacci’s State House news conference said DirigoChoice will make it possible to continue coverage for her modestly paid employee while giving her a raise.

Cindy Noyes of Noyes Flower and Plant Shop said insurance rates for her family and employee were going to total around $26,000 per year. Under DirigoChoice, her family rate might stay about the same, but she expects her employee’s rate to drop.

That means she’ll take less out of her employee’s paycheck for health coverage, and that will translate into a raise, Noyes said. She also sees a side benefit from the program.

“Hopefully I won’t have to shop around every year for a cheaper rate,” Noyes said.

Unemployed Mainers and those who work for businesses that don’t offer insurance can join DirigoChoice starting Feb. 1. Their benefits will become effective April 1.

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