SOUTH PORTLAND – Advocates and critics of Dirigo Choice, the state’s subsidized health care insurance program, squared off Thursday debating its success – or failure – so far.

The Greater Portland Chamber held the breakfast forum at the Portland Marriott at Sable Oaks.

The state has been signing up folks since January. So far, 6,366 people have enrolled. That includes:

• Employees of 483 small businesses.

• 1,276 sole proprietors.

• 995 individuals not affiliated with a business.

The program targets the uninsured and underinsured who are self-employed or work for a business that employs fewer than 50 workers. Its mission is to lower health care costs and insurance premiums by insuring people who otherwise would go without insurance. Those people have driven up the overall cost of health care in Maine, said Andrew Coburn, director of the Institute for Health Policy at the Edmund S. Muskie School of Public Service in Portland.

Joe Ditre, who heads a nonprofit health advocacy group in Maine, said the numbers so far are encouraging. “It’s a tremendous success,” he said. “We should all celebrate.”

But detractors of the program, including a conservative think tank in Portland and a health insurance broker, said it is a failure.

Tarren Bragdon, who represented Maine Heritage Policy Center, said Dirigo enrollment is running 61 percent below projections.

Joan M. Harrigan of Banknorth Insurance Group said her research showed the program has been drawing most of its members from other insurance programs, not those who lack insurance.

But Ditre said the projections Bragdon cited were based on a July 2004 start and should have been revised when Dirigo’s implementation was delayed by six months. He also challenged Harrigan’s numbers, saying they are not based on a scientific sampling.

The Muskie School is charged with reporting Dirigo’s progress based on surveys of enrollees and other data not yet available. That report should be available by the end of June, Ditre said.



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