PORTLAND – U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe returned to Maine this week, trying to focus her schedule and her attention on jobs and the economy.

But the great health care debate that culminated in passage of a national reform law last week is not going away just yet.

“I think people are angry about the atmosphere and the divisiveness and bickering. I’ve had many people say they just can’t believe it,” Snowe said Monday.

Maine’s senior senator met with the editorial board of MaineToday Media, which publishes the Portland Press Herald/ Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, Waterville’s Morning Sentinel, and the weekly Coastal Journal in Bath, along with handling their respective Web sites.

During an hourlong discussion that focused on health care, Snowe said it’s unclear how the polarized debate will affect congressional action on the economy or this fall’s elections.

She also said there are many unknowns about the new law, including how individual businesses will be affected and how effectively it will control health insurance costs for employers and their workers.

Snowe is one of 41 Republican senators going home for Easter recess after trying, and failing, to defeat the bill. She was one of the architects of the initial Senate bill and an early supporter who had an inside view of a process that ended in partisan finger-pointing.

“It wasn’t inevitable that it would go down this path,” she said Monday.

Snowe voted in favor of the bill as a member of the Senate Finance Committee in October, saying she wanted to move the legislation to the full Senate for debate. “It went in a dramatically different direction from there,” she said.

The new law, for example, includes a Medicare payroll tax on high-income individuals that wasn’t in the committee bill, and higher penalties for companies with 50 or more workers that don’t offer health insurance. Such an employer could pay $2,000 for every worker after the first 30.

“It all moved in that direction” of more taxes and bigger penalties, Snowe said.

Meanwhile, the law doesn’t make immediate reforms that could control costs for employers and individuals, she said.

“We shortchanged the other things that could have been done sooner, (such as) making the insurance marketplace competitive,” she said.

New insurance exchanges are intended to help provide competition and cost controls starting in 2014, but Snowe said it’s not clear how well or how quickly they will work.

“Time will tell, but it’s going to be a while down the road,” she said. “It remains to be seen whether or not premiums will go up in the meantime.”

Snowe did cite some items she likes in the new law.

“The good thing that will happen this year is tax credits for small businesses,” she said. Employers with 25 or fewer workers can apply for as much as 35 percent credit for health insurance costs.

She also credited the law for banning egregious practices by insurance companies, such as denying coverage to people who get sick.

Snowe made it clear Monday that she was frustrated by the process, and she singled out the Democratic leadership: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Snowe said she voted “yes” in committee believing that she and others would have plenty of opportunity to offer more amendments on the Senate floor.

“I was personally assured we would have an open amendment process,” she said. “If I had known I couldn’t amend it, I would have tried a different course.”

Snowe said she continued to speak with Democratic leaders in hopes of making the bill more bipartisan.

“I offered but they were not prepared to accept it,” she said. “I think (President Obama) did want bipartisan (support), but obviously this was shaped by the leadership in the Senate and the House.”

Joe Ditre, executive director of Consumers for Affordable Health Care, disagrees with Snowe about the way the law evolved.

Ditre, an advocate who worked with Snowe’s office on many details of the legislation, said the final law is not all that different from the bill produced by Snowe and the other bipartisan negotiators on the Senate Finance Committee.

“This is very much like the bipartisan Group of Six bill,” Ditre said. “The president basically said, ‘I don’t want to see a lot of changes to this,’ and they didn’t do it. The disagreement seems to be more along the lines of maybe a hard line the (Republican) party has taken, rather than real differences.”

Ditre said the bill provides clear benefits for the vast majority of small businesses and will control costs across the board. The penalties and taxes in the law also will have very narrow effects, he said.

Snowe is right, Ditre said, that the reform can be improved through more legislation or rulemaking, including changes that could help control premiums.

“We’re hoping that as we move toward implementation and there are things that need to be fixed, that we can work with Sen. Snowe,” he said.

Snowe said she’s glad she did what she could to shape the law, even though she couldn’t support it in the end. And she said she hopes the bickering won’t keep Congress from working together on what should be its top priority after recess.

“It should be jobs, jobs, jobs,” she said.

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: [email protected]