AUGUSTA – The Maine Senate was poised late Thursday to pass a bill that would achieve a longtime goal of Republicans: inject free-market reforms into the state’s health insurance market and dismantle regulations that were largely established by Democrats over the last 20 years.

But it appeared that any Republican victory would come at a steep price. Furious that Republicans had “ramrodded” the bill through the Legislature, Democrats were threatening to turn the final weeks of the legislative session into a partisan battle.

They said that Republicans had pushed through L.D. 1333 without giving lawmakers or the public enough time to study it.

The tension between Democrats and Republicans escalated after the GOP majority in the House passed the bill without accepting any of the six amendments that Democrats had submitted.

After the vote, Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, an expert in legislative rules, told Republicans that the rules require that all bills funded with taxpayer money be sent to the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee for consideration.

Other Democrats agreed.

“Why are they pushing through this now?” asked Rep. Margaret Rotundo of Lewiston, the lead House Democrat on the committee. Rotundo noted that the bill wouldn’t take effect until 90 days after the end of the legislative session.

“This doesn’t have to take place in such a rush in the dark of night,” she said.

The Appropriations Committee, where Republicans hold the majority, convened at 10:40 p.m. An hour later, it voted 8-4 along party lines not to take up the bill and send it straight to the Senate for the final vote.

The Maine Senate voted shortly before 1 a.m. today to adjourn without voting on LD 1333 and to take up the bill on Monday.

If the bill is approved as expected, Gov. Paul LePage has said he will sign it.

Martin accused Republicans of engaging in “shenanigans” by bypassing the normal legislative process to raise millions of dollars in taxes through fees on everybody who has insurance.

“It’s a good trick, one I never thought of before,” said Martin, who is a member of the Appropriations Committee.

A few hours earlier, House Democrats had failed to modify the Republican-backed bill to overhaul Maine’s health insurance system. The House passed it on a final vote, 78-68. Only two Democrats voted for it.

Republicans, who have a narrow majority in the House, struck down each of the six amendments offered by Democrats.

Democrats spoke for more than 4½ hours in an attempt to coax a few Republican votes to their side. Republicans listened in silence and then voted in unison.

Rep. Andrea Boland, D-Sanford, said Republicans were tearing down regulations carefully put in place by previous lawmakers. “A tradition of caring is not worth throwing out,” she said.

Several Democrats were critical of the bill’s plan to fund insurance for people with high medical costs through a $4-per-person monthly tax on everybody in Maine who has a health insurance policy, except state workers and legislators.

“We are like lemmings heading to the cliff and have given private parachutes to ourselves,” said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham.

Republicans said they don’t like that part of the bill either, and will fix it at some point in the future.

Martin offered an amendment to preserve Rule 850, a section of Maine’s insurance code that requires insurers’ provider networks to have primary care physicians within a 30-minute drive of policyholders’ homes, and hospitals within an hour’s drive.

By repealing Rule 850, the bill eventually would cause several rural hospitals to close, Martin said.

He said he was “amazed” that the insurance industry has managed to keep the Republican Party unified on a bill that would lead to the closure of hospitals. “It saddens me to some degree that, for the first time in my legislative career, people in rural Maine cannot even stick together,” Martin said.

Rep. Ryan Harmon, R-Palermo, said Democrats were trying to protect a “failed” system that has resulted in insurance rates that are more than 50 percent higher than in New Hampshire.

“This is a pro-family bill, and I am glad to see this historic day for Maine,” he said.

Rep. Jonathan McKane, R-Newcastle, said small businesses have been pleading for change.

“It’s time the status quo ends,” he said in the last speech before the vote.

The 45-page bill would overhaul the health insurance market for about 40,000 people — those who buy independently or through employers whose companies have 50 or fewer workers.

It would affect almost every policyholder in the state because of the tax on premiums of as much as $4 per person per month.

The bill would give insurance companies more leeway in how much they can charge policyholders based on occupation and age.

Republicans say the changes would foster more competition in the health insurance market. They say that the reforms would encourage more young people to buy insurance, and that a larger pool with more healthy people would lower premiums for all groups.

The bill would prohibit insurers from rejecting people for pre-existing conditions. It would create a mechanism for covering insurance costs of people with chronic illnesses.

The nonprofit Maine Guaranteed Access Reinsurance Association would subsidize the insurance of people who have high medical costs, using revenue raised from the tax on premiums.

The two House Democrats who voted for the bill were Rep. Steve Hanley of Gardiner and Michael Shaw of Standish.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 699-6261 or at:

[email protected]