AUGUSTA – A pair of Democratic-backed adjustments to the Republicans’ 2011 health care reform law received initial approval Monday in both houses of the Maine Legislature.

But the bills don’t have much bipartisan support. One passed with no Republican votes in either the House of Representatives or 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.

Republicans said the changes they enacted in 2011 would free up market forces and bring down the cost of insurance over time, while Democrats argue that the reforms are increasing the costs for older, rural residents and will lead to higher rates overall.

One bill passed by lawmakers on Monday, 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 do in lower-cost, more-populated areas such as southern Maine.

Luchini’s bill would place a tighter limit on how much insurers can very rates based on geography. It passed 83-57 in the House on Monday, and the vote somewhat reflected the geographical effects of the existing law.

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.

“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,” he said.

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 second bill passed by lawmakers on Monday, 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 cleanly 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 — including less than 10 percent — for individual health insurance plans.

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

But supporters of existing law say the review standard is adequate and consistent with federal law, and that anything more would be excessive.

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

 

Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at:

mshepherd@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @mikeshepherdme