AUGUSTA — The Dirigo Health insurance program, established with great fanfare a decade ago as a nationally pioneering program to cover the uninsured, is phasing out of business.
Once seen as a leap toward universal health care in Maine, Dirigo was a centerpiece of then-Gov. John Baldacci’s agenda and was created with bipartisan support.
The Democratic governor signed the Dirigo bill during a grand ceremony in the Blaine House garden on June 18, 2003, declaring that the state was moving ahead to insure everyone instead of waiting for Congress to act on universal health care. The program’s Latin name, which translates to “I Lead,” Maine’s motto, hinted at its heady goal to set a nation≠–al example.
“As Maine people, we don’t wait for our ship to come in from Washington or elsewhere – we build our own ship and so we have with Dirigo Health,” Baldacci said.
But the program bumped and lurched on unstable financial underpinnings and never lived up to its full expectations. In 2010, as Republicans gained control of state government, detractors vowed that “Dirigo will be diri-gone.” They kept their promise and voted to end the program at 2013’s end.
On Dec. 31, Dirigo’s marquee programs, such as DirigoChoice, Part-Time Worker Coverage Voucher and the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan, will end. Other programs administered by Dirigo, such as the Health Care Tax Credit, will shift to other state agencies.
Baldacci believes Dirigo served its purpose and in some ways will live on. The former governor said some of its key components served as a model for the national Affordable Care Act, and some of its offerings will be available through a new health cooperative, Maine Community Health Options, through an exchange where consumers can shop for coverage.
“Dirigo was a bridge to the Affordable Care Act,” Baldacci said. “We looked at it as a laboratory.”
Dirigo has provided coverage to about 40,000 Mainers and more than 1,500 Maine businesses, agency Executive Director Karynlee Harrington told the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee in January. At that time, more than 15,600 people and more than 750 small businesses were receiving support through Dirigo programs, she said.
But the agency’s fading away doesn’t mean all its clients will be left out in the cold, thanks in large part to changes in federal health care policy.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, signed into law on March 23, 2010, by President Barack Obama, is being looked on to take up much of the slack in covering uninsured Mainers.
Dirigo Board Chairman Joseph Bruno said the 8,000 people enrolled in the DirigoChoice program are being told they’ll have to find new coverage. Many will go to the new Maine Community Health Options co-op, a nonprofit health insurance company organized in 2011 with the help of $62 million in federal loans made available through the ACA.
“We certainly welcome them,” said the co-op’s executive director, Kevin Lewis.
The loans will be repaid with co-op premium dollars, Lewis said. The co-op, which must always remain a nonprofit, expects the bulk of its health plans to be offered to individuals and small businesses.
About 7,500 of the other Dirigo clients will be able to enroll in previously expanded Medicaid, or MaineCare, programs, Bruno said.