NORWAY — A panel of speakers said Tuesday that proposed federal health care reform would have both potential benefits and drawbacks to the state.

The forum was sponsored by Western Maine Health and the Oxford County Chamber of Commerce. Joel Allumbaugh, CEO of National Worksite Benefit Group, said about 80 percent of Americans are “reasonably happy” with their health insurance, but two-thirds favor health care reform.

“What drives it? Cost,” Allumbaugh said. “Even those of us that are reasonably happy with our care are not happy with what we’re paying for it.”

Allumbaugh said proposed reforms would create exchanges through which insurance companies would sell policies. Individuals and Maine companies with fewer than 50 employees would have to buy insurance through such exchanges. Plans in Maine are often purchased with higher deductibles than in other states, he said.

“Maine today is a very high-cost state,” he said. “And so there’s a concern as to whether our Maine plans will satisfy those requirements. If they do, you could potentially keep your plan. If they don’t, then you would be required to change your plan.”

Higher costs in the state could also make plans more vulnerable to a proposed excise tax on excessive employer-provided insurance, Allumbaugh said. The cost of a proposal that passed the U.S. Senate Finance Committee would cost $826 billion over 10 years, with $440 billion coming from savings from the existing Medicare system, he said. Further revenue would come from additional fees and assessments on pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers, among others.

Katie Fullam Harris, senior director of government and employer relations for MaineHealth, said she supports some areas of the proposed reform, including an increase in the number of primary health providers and improved reimbursement for services. However, Harris said, health care premiums have increased 131 percent over the past decade, while wages have increased by 29 percent.

“Cost containment is just as important as coverage expansion,” she said.

Maine has one of the highest-valued health care systems in the country and receives one of the lowest  reimbursements through Medicare or Medicaid, Harris said. Further cuts to those programs would shift costs onto commercial payers.

“The last thing we can afford to sustain are increased cuts to our Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements,” she said.

Tim Churchill, president and CEO of Western Maine Health, said he supported an increase in primary health providers but was opposed to Medicare and Medicaid cuts. Small hospitals would have to shift costs or reduce services if further cuts were made, he said.

Medicare and Medicaid currently pay about three-quarters of service costs at Stephens Memorial Hospital, Churchill said, and cuts would shift costs to private insurers, who currently pay about 212 percent of cost. He said the average Medicare expenditures per beneficiary per year in Maine in 2006 was $6,952, while the national average was $8,304.

Thomas Downing, owner of Lifeline Institute for Workplace Health Promotion, said companies are increasingly focusing on wellness as part of their health policies. He said the Maine Center for Disease Control released a study in 2002 saying 75 percent of Mainers die from four chronic diseases: cancer, diabetes, and heart and lung disease.

“In most cases, it’s related to how you and I live our lives,” he said.

Richelle Wallace, senior vice president of human resources for Norway Savings Bank, said the company changed its health plan to include a higher deductible, after which 100 percent of costs would be covered. She said the approach has led employees to look for personal savings related to health costs.

“All of those contribute to reduced medical expenses, claims and premiums, as well,” she said.

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Joel Allumbaugh, CEO of National Worksite Benefit Group, speaks at a panel on health care reform in Norway on Tuesday.

Panelists answer questions on proposed health care reform Tuesday at the Ripley Medical Building in Norway.

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