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Maine insurance bill sparks bitter partisan debate

A Republican-sponsored bill aimed at overhauling Maine's health insurance regulations is facing strong partisan opposition, with critics contending it will make insurance unaffordable for those living in rural areas.

The bill, LD 1333, is modeled after Idaho's insurance regulations. Its sponsor, State Rep. Jonathan McKane (R), told Maine Public Broadcasting that a "60-year-old in Idaho is paying the same amount as a 20-year-old in Maine. If that doesn't say we should do something, I don't know what will."

But Democrats and advocacy groups say the bill was pushed too quickly through the Insurance and Financial Affairs Committee two weeks ago, and there has not been adequate time for public comment or  for legislators to understand the full scope of the changes it could make.

A preliminary vote in the House saw the bill pass by a tally of 76-73 on strict party lines; another vote was scheduled for Tuesday, and the legislation is headed to the Senate later this week.

The bill is aimed at overhauling health insurance regulations for those who buy insurance individually or through employers with fewer than 50 employees. In all, the legislation would affect approximately 40,000 people.

Maine's Republican governor, Paul LePage, supports that bill and says it will help improve the state's business climate.

"LD 1333 will increase competition in Maine's health insurance market, allowing individuals and businesses to buy insurance from other New England states," said LePage. "LD 1333 also helps small businesses by allowing job creators with fewer than 50 employees to band together to purchase insurance. By widening the insurance pool and reducing risk, the companies that power Maine's economy can drive down their health insurance costs and make room to expand and hire more Maine people."

But opponents say the bill waters down consumer protections and will acutally result in much higher and potentially unaffordable insurance rates for many Mainers, especially those living in rural areas.

"LD 1333 contains many provisions potentially harmful to Maine people and businesses," noted an analysis of the bill conducted by Maine Center for Economic Policy. "Supporters of LD 1333 fail to acknowledge the trade-offs between proposed changes and their impacts on older Mainers, the sick, and rural residents and businesses. As a vehicle for continued improvement of healthcare for Mainers, LD 1333 is a flop that will undermine shared prosperity and move us farther from effective solutions to Maine's healthcare challenges."

Opponents are particularly concerned that the bill would repeal a provision that prohibits insurance companies from requiring policyholders to go to hospitals in other parts of the state for medical procedures. That could cause insurance companies to require members to travel from rural areas to larger regional hospitals and provide problems with access to care.

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