There are 90,000 reasons why DirigoHealth is going to referendum this November – each name on a petition to repeal tax increases enacted this year to fund the subsidized health insurance program.

This petition landed upon the secretary of state’s desk with a thump. Anti-tax forces needed 55,000 (and change) to get the item on the ballot, but they still delivered a 38 percent profit.

This margin virtually secures the tax repeal’s appearance on November’s ballot.

While the question is about taxes, the real issue is Dirigo’s future. If this new funding structure – tax increases on beer, wine, soda and paid insurance claims – are repealed, the viability of the program becomes questionable.

With costs exceeding expectations, but enrollment that hasn’t, Dirigo is a battered political football. The taxes were a compromise for retiring the savings offset payment, a levy on insurers that failed to yield enough funds.

A return to the SOP landscape could leave Dirigo in limbo: unable to re-open enrollment, but unable to disappear without thousands of Mainers, including many small businesses, losing their health insurance coverage.

Neither outcome is attractive. But the immense number of signatures on the repeal petition indicate the alternative – higher taxes to pay for health insurance – isn’t attractive either. This is why November’s referendum is critical.

Tough analyses of Dirigo have been avoided, so far. Lawmakers parry and thrust along partisan lines about the program, and innumerable evaluations of its efficacy have been drafted, circulated, debated, trashed and recycled.

Depending on who you talk to, Dirigo is either a national model for reforming health insurance, or a catastrophic failure of such grandiose proportions as to require the summary impeachment of every legislator who supports it.

The truth is somewhere between, though admittance by Dirigo advocates that the program suffered from lofty expectations is telling. This says Dirigo is neither what it was billed to be, nor is it as bad as critics maintain.

But we knew this already, right? What don’t we know about Dirigo, which we should?

The answers to hard questions, such as whether the $100 million cost for Dirigo (or the $190 million in purported Dirigo savings now being reviewed in Augusta) is worth the coverage of approximately 18,000 people.

Or, also important, whether a majority of Maine people believe Dirigo is a valuable allocation of tax dollars.

Myriad subjective voices believe they know the answer to the first question, and have clashed about it for years, without resolution. It’s fair to say, at this juncture, that debate about Dirigo is a draw.

Meanwhile, the latter question is unanswered. The governor, legislators and business organizations – the groups now clashing over taxes – were there at Dirigo’s inception. Each had their say then, and plenty since.

In November, voters will likely have their chance.


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