AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul Le Page will sign a bill today to overhaul Maine’s health insurance system, putting an end to a bruising political brawl that gave Republicans their biggest victory of the session but left many Democrats furious about the bill’s quick march through the Legislature.

In a 24-10 vote, the Maine Senate gave final approval Monday to L.D. 1333 after a testy floor debate that displayed the tensions that have emerged between the parties over the issue.

Democrats have complained that they had no role in drafting the bill, which was endorsed in a party-line vote by the Legislature’s Insurance and Financial Services Committee on April 29, the same day an extensive amendment was submitted.

The committee added new language a week later without holding another public hearing or vote.

Hostilities peaked Thursday night, when Democrats accused Republicans of rushing the bill to a vote in the Senate without giving the Appropriations Committee a chance to determine whether it makes sense financially. Late Thursday night, GOP leaders called for an emergency session of the committee, which took a party-line vote to exempt the bill from review.

It was the committee’s first split vote of this session and signaled potential problems ahead for the budget-writing committee, whose bipartisanship is critical because the budget needs approval by two-thirds of the House and Senate.

During debate on the Senate floor Monday, Democrats continued to attack Republicans for moving the bill without giving the Maine Bureau of Insurance time to complete an actuarial study to determine its impact.

“We are rushing this through so fast we don’t have time to check the numbers and check the implications,” said Sen. Philip Bartlett, D-Gorham.

Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Sanford, said the bill’s passage allows him to keep his pledge to constituents that he would lower the cost of health insurance for people who buy it independently or in the small-group market.

“The good intentions of the past have left us with some of the highest insurance rates in the country,” he said. “Now it’s time to take a different path.”

Three Democrats, Sens. Bill Diamond of Windham, Nancy Sullivan of Biddeford and Elizabeth Schneider of Orono, voted with the Republican majority, as did Dick Woodbury, an independent from Yarmouth.

Sullivan said her vote has made her unpopular among Democratic lawmakers, but she supported the bill because Republicans in the Senate were willing to make some modest changes that improved it.

“I have gotten used to the dirty looks,” she said of the response from some Democrats.

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

It affects almost every policyholder in the state because it will add a tax on premiums of as much as $4 per person per month, to help cover people with high medical costs.

Federal and state workers, including legislators, will not have to pay the tax.

Senate Democrats sought to amend the bill Monday to require that the tax also apply to lawmakers. Republicans blocked that attempt, but said they plan to submit separate legislation to accomplish the same thing.

Republicans say the changes will foster more competition in the health insurance market.

They say the reforms will encourage more young people to buy insurance, and that a larger pool with more healthy people will lower premiums for all groups.

LePage is scheduled to sign the bill at 12:30 p.m. today in the State House Hall of Flags.

 

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