New Hope for Health Care in Maine

The last two years have not been kind to Mainers struggling with the cost  of and access to health care. Now that power in Augusta has shifted, however, Maine has a great opportunity to change direction and start moving forward on health care again. One of the most detrimental things that happened during the last session was the passage of Public Law 90, also known as the rate hike bill. This piece of legislation was a massive handout to Anthem and other health insurance companies at the expense of older, rural, and hardworking Mainers. Some of the worst aspects of the law include:

  • Allowing insurance companies to raise rates on individual policy holders by up to 10% every year without having to go through a rate review process.
  • Allowing insurance companies to raise rates on people living in rural areas, people who are older, and people working in dangerous jobs, like fishermen, farmers, and loggers, among others.
  • Passing a new tax on individual policy holders that subsidized insurance company profits.

It didn’t take long after the passage of the law for the effects to be felt across the state. Small businesses were hit especially hard. Across the state small business owners saw their rates increase, some as much as 120%, with the largest percentage of rate increases happening in rural Maine. The cost of health care, and this law in particular, were a major focal point of the election. In the fall, small business owners across the state spoke out at press conferences about the rate increases they have seen and voiced their support for overturning the law. MPA endorsed a slate of candidates who promised to work to roll back the worst aspects of the law and the majority of those endorsed candidates are now in office, despite a strong effort by insurance companies to stop them.

This legislative session, MPA is excited to work with the new majority to roll back the worst parts of the rate hike bill. Senator John Patrick (D-Rumford) has already submitted L.D. 83 which would reinstate the rate review process. In the past, the rate review process has been crucial in curbing Anthem’s extreme rate hikes and has saved Maine people thousands of dollars. Since the law went into effect, the tax levied on people with health insurance has generated $14.25 million, and the board that controls that money operates behind closed doors. A good first step towards reform is making sure those meetings are open to the public and that the allocation of that money is transparent. The new chairs of the Insurance and Financial Services Committee, Rep. Sharon Treat (D-Hallowell) and Senator Geoffrey Gratwick (D-Bangor), have already begun calling for more transparency and public involvement.

In addition to the rate hike bill, the proposed state budget is a major concern again this year. Governor LePage passed a budget last year that counted on cutting several thousand people off of MaineCare, Maine’s Medicaid program. The cuts required a federal waiver, and most of the cuts were not approved. The Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare, set aside federal money to provide coverage to about 44,000 Maine people under MaineCare who could not otherwise afford it. Governor LePage has publically stated that he will not accept this federal funding, but we are hopeful that accepting the money and taking the opportunity to give more Maine people access to health care will be a part of the upcoming budget.

Another important area where Maine can now move forward is around the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Under the act, Maine is required to create a health exchange, a marketplace to regulate insurance companies and make purchasing insurance much easier. The exchange, or marketplace, is a website and in person system that allows people to quickly find out what programs or subsidies they qualify for, and compare policies in an easy to understand format. The exchange also helps regulate insurance companies, and will help people understand what benefits they are paying for.

On the hopes that the Supreme Court would rule against the law, or that Romney would win the election, LePage and Republicans in the legislature refused to pass any legislation to get Maine ready to set up and run our own health exchange. LePage and the Republican-led State House played a game of political chicken for last two years and lost. The federal government will run our exchange for at least the first year, but MPA is hopeful that our new leaders in Augusta can work together to build an exchange that we can switch to soon. Forward movement to create a Maine-based exchange will give Maine people more control over how the exchange operates and more flexibility to change and tweak the system to work better for us as we learn and grow.

If well-crafted, a state exchange could one day help us move toward universal coverage for all Maine people. The Maine People’s Alliance is partnering with the Maine AFL-CIO and the Maine State Nurses Association on the Health Care is a Human Right Campaign. Based on Vermont’s successful campaign to win universal coverage, the Maine Health Care is a Human Right Campaign will begin by collecting surveys and stories about the failings of the current system. No one should have to choose between food, housing, or health care. Health care is a human right and therefore should be a public good, much like our police and fire departments, and education system. If you are interested in joining the campaign and volunteering on a grassroots campaign to expose our health care crisis and demand that health care be treated as a public good, please get in touch with your local MPA organizer. Stay tuned for more information later this year.

If you would like to be more involved in the fight for health care contact Jennie Pirkl, Portland Community Organizer, at 797-0967 or email at: jennie@mainepeoplesalliance.org.

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