AUGUSTA — A pair of Democratic-backed adjustments to Republicans’ 2011 health-care reform law initially passed both houses of the Maine Legislature on Monday.

But the bills don’t have much bipartisan support. One passed with no Republican support in either the House of Representatives and the Senate. The other was backed by only five Republicans in both chambers combined.

That sets up what looks like an easy veto opportunity for Gov. Paul LePage, whose administration opposes the bills. Before they get to LePage’s desk, the bills face further votes in the House and Senate.

One bill, L.D. 161, sponsored by Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, is aimed at stopping certain  geographical impacts of the health-care law, Public Law 90.

The law reportedly reduced health insurance rates for many, but had negative effects in rural areas by giving insurers the ability to vary premiums by age and geography. The flexibility meant insurance companies could charge more in higher-cost areas, such as Down East and Aroostook County, than they charge in lower-cost more-populated areas such as southern Maine.

Luchini’s bill would allow insurers only one geography-based rating area in Maine. It passed 83-57 in the House and 22-13 on Monday, and the votes somewhat reflected geographical effects. 

The only three Republicans to support the bill, Reps. Tyler Clark of Easton in Aroostook County, Joyce Maker of Calais and Beth Turner of Burlington in eastern Penobscot County, represent rural areas. The four Democrats who opposed it are from Sanford, Saco and Biddeford, more-populous communities in southern Maine.

The two Senate Republicans who supported the bill, David Burns of Whiting in Washington County and Roger Sherman of Houlton, represent areas Down East and in the north, respectively.

On the House floor, Rep. Robert Saucier, D-Presque Isle, said small employers in his district have reported rate increases of as much as 100 percent, causing them to reduce or even eliminate coverage for employees.

“In times like this, we need to partner with business to get our economy moving and grow Maine’s middle class,” he said. “Allowing insurance companies to discriminate against rural Mainers is clearly hurting our small businesses because it allows insurance companies to take money away from their bottom line.”

A 2011 actuarial report prepared for the Maine Bureau of Insurance suggested that the law passed that year would have mixed effects. For example, 80 percent of individuals would see rates go down and 20 percent would see them go up – mostly elderly residents in rural areas.

But Rep. Joyce Fitzpatrick, R-Houlton, said undoing the geographical provision in the law would hurt more than it would help, especially in southern counties.

“Making additional changes to geographic rating will create more disruption in insurance rates,” she said.

The other bill, L.D. 225, sponsored by Rep. Nathan Libby, D-Lewiston, would re-establish state review of certain insurance rate increases.

Both the 85-56 House vote and the 20-15 Senate vote broke totally along party lines, with no Republicans breaking ranks to support it.

Under the original reform law, insurers are allowed to raise rates without state approval if the increase is less than 10 percent and the company is paying 80 percent of its money from premiums toward care and quality improvement. 

Libby’s bill would restore the old process of rate review and approval, which included routine hearings by the superintendent of insurance when companies proposed rate increases for individual health insurance plans.

“This bill is about transparency, accountability and fairness,” Libby said on the floor.

But supporters of existing law say it is adequate, in step with federal standards and anything more would be excessive.

“Prior approval does not translate to lower rates,” said Fitzpatrick, who opposed the bill.

In April, LePage’s insurance commissioner, Eric Cioppa, testified against two more-sweeping versions of the two bills passed Monday. In written testimony, he said Libby’s bill would “add cost and timeliness issues to the process.”

State House Bureau Writer Michael Shepherd can be reached at 370-7652 or at: mshepherd@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme