AUGUSTA — Health care experts disagreed Wednesday about the impact of new legislation that makes sweeping changes to the health insurance system in Maine.

But at least it’s better than the status quo, said a spokesman for business interests.

“It is a legitimate attempt to try and change the status quo that was absolutely, in the eyes of the business community, not working for them,” said Peter Gore, vice president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

Gore served on a five-member panel Wednesday at a breakfast meeting at Maine Hospital Association headquarters. The forum was sponsored by the Maine Health Access Foundation, the Maine Medical Association, the Maine Development Foundation and Quality Counts.

Dr. Wendy Wolf, CEO of the access foundation, laid the groundwork for the forum by talking about L.D. 1333, a law passed with mostly Republican support in May. “This law represents one of the most significant changes in health insurance since the 1990s,” Wolf said.

The law takes steps to ease regulations in the health insurance system. It allows Mainers to buy insurance across state lines, and gives insurance companies flexibility in setting rates for people based on age, whether they smoke and where they live. It also creates a “high-risk pool” for people who use a lot of health care services.

To pay for those in the pool, everyone in the state with private coverage will pay as much as a $4 monthly assessment, which could go as high as $6. The $4 assessment would generate $25 million a year to support the reinsurance pool, said Eric Cioppa, acting superintendent of the state Bureau of Insurance.

Cioppa said the reforms are designed to help people who buy health insurance on their own or through employers whose companies have 50 or fewer workers. Combined, they apply to about 135,000 Mainers. Also, there are an estimated 100,000 Mainers without health insurance, he said.

Since 1999, Anthem Blue/Cross Blue Shield has raised rates in the individual market 288 percent, Cioppa said. Many Mainers who buy insurance through the individual market also have deductibles of $5,000 or more.

One major goal of the law is to increase competition and lower the cost of health insurance for young Mainers, to get them to buy insurance. Joel Allumbaugh, director of Health Reform Initiatives for the Maine Heritage Policy Center, displayed a graphic showing that rates for 20-year-olds in Maine are three times those in New Hampshire.

If young and healthy people sign up for coverage, “the more cost-effective it is for all of us,” he said.

On the other end of the political spectrum, Garrett Martin of the Maine Center for Economic Policy said that although the law will lower rates for younger Mainers, it will likely increase rates for those who are older and live in rural areas.

“We don’t believe that many young and healthy people will come into the market to drive prices down,” he said.

He showed a chart indicating that the law will increase costs in northern and eastern Maine, lower costs in southern and midcoast Maine and have no effect on cost in the western lakes and mountains region.

Jeff Austin, chief lobbyist of the Maine Hospital Association, said members of the association are waiting to see how the new system works.

“The status quo is so hard to defend, and the status quo does need to be changed,” he said. 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:
[email protected]