AUGUSTA (AP) – As disputes over the Dirigo Health program continue in court and on the campaign trail, a meeting at the Maine State House today may offer a hint at the latest prospects for a truce.

Gathering for the State House session will be members of a new Blue Ribbon Commission on Dirigo Health, led by Chairwoman Sandra Featherman, the recently retired president of the University of New England in Biddeford.

The panel’s membership – including representatives of the insurance industry, advocates for doctors and hospitals along with business and organized labor officials – was announced a month ago by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci.

Baldacci has championed the Dirigo Health program – a public health care program that aims to insure Maine’s 130,000 uninsured, control health care costs and improve the quality of health care – in the face of broad criticism from Republicans and others.

One of the most controversial elements of the Dirigo Health program has been its financing, and that issue is expected to be central in the blue ribbon panel’s deliberations.

Most recently, a Superior Court judge rejected an appeal of last fall’s decision by Insurance Superintendent Alessandro Iuppa that Dirigo Health initiatives produced savings of $44 million in the program’s first year.

The ruling was a victory for the Baldacci administration, coming on an appeal brought by groups including the Maine Association of Health Plans and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, but a further review by the state supreme court is expected.

Established to promote affordable health care coverage, a key part of the Dirigo Health program is its subsidies for low-income individuals and business employees.

Subsidies are funded in part from savings offset payments made by health insurance carriers.

With the first year’s savings determination already under attack, Iuppa said last month that savings in the state’s health care system resulting from the Dirigo Health program last year amounted to $34.3 million.

On Monday, however, as the ruling for the state by Superior Court Justice Roland Cole was circulating, the Dirigo Health Agency board of directors put off action to assess the second year savings offset payment.

Baldacci issued a statement Tuesday applauding the board’s deferral and said it reflected an expectation by the board that the blue ribbon commission will develop an alternative funding mechanism the Dirigo Health program.

“Over 15,000 Maine people are covered by Dirigo Health and it has saved all of us $78 million in our health care costs,” Baldacci said in a statement.

“Dirigo Health has proven its importance to the people of Maine,” Baldacci said. “I am confident that the blue ribbon commission will come up with a real and workable alternative to the SOP” – the savings offset payment.

The blue-ribbon panel’s agenda for today, its first meeting, includes a final entry: “Discussion – What are the big issues before us?”

In late May, Democratic bids to restructure the administration and financing of the Dirigo Health program ran aground as Maine lawmakers concluded the 2006 regular legislative session.

Baldacci pledged then to name a blue ribbon commission to make recommendations on the program’s structure and financial underpinning.



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