AUBURN – Hundreds of central Maine residents turned out for a public hearing Thursday to criticize the pending partnership between Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield and the parent company of Maine Medical Center.

Anthem, the state’s largest health insurer, and MaineHealth, the state’s largest network of hospitals and care providers, are planning to offer an insurance network on the health care exchange to be created in Maine under the federal Affordable Care Act.

The network will include 32 of the state’s 38 hospitals, excluding only the three hospitals owned by Central Maine Healthcare of Lewiston, Parkview Adventist Medical Center in Brunswick, York Hospital in York and Mercy Hospital in Portland.

Anthem and MaineHealth already have approval from the Maine Bureau of Insurance for the plan to partner on the health insurance exchange. Their provider network and pricing have also been approved.

Thursday’s public hearing was the third of four to be held by the Bureau of Insurance on whether Anthem can transfer individuals to new insurance plans. The transfer would affect about 9,000 people, says Anthem, which insures 320,000 Mainers who have many types of plans.

Scores of people at the hearing wore neon-green T-shirts with the slogan “Please keep care local.”

The T-shirts were provided by Central Maine Medical Center, which has slammed the Anthem-MaineHealth plan as discriminating against insurance subscribers in central and western Maine, who could have to travel farther to reach doctors in the plan.

Anthem recently sent letters telling its individual subscribers of the plan to switch their health plans to ones that adhere to the Affordable Care Act.

Pam Peters, an Anthem subscriber, said the letter was confusing and upsetting.

“If we don’t do anything, we’re going to be switched. To do that is unjust. It should be, ‘I get to make a choice,’ not ‘I have a choice made for me,'” Peters said.

The crowd that gathered Thursday night at Central Maine Community College clapped and cheered for speakers. None of the dozens of speakers during the three-hour hearing voiced support for the Anthem-MaineHealth partnership.

“If you cut out a whole section of the state, those people are going to have to travel hours to Maine Medical” in Portland, said Mary Zurhorst of Rumford. “For people who aren’t well, it’s a hardship financially, mentally and physically to travel. We’re not a rich community. We’re cutting out a whole group of people in central Maine. We’re human beings and we deserve health care.”

“MaineHealth is banking on the fact this is a poor area,” said Leslie Colburn, registered nurse. “Greed and politics are the motivation here. Health care needs to stay local.”

Anthem spokesman Chris Dugan said subscribers have a choice of plans with MaineHealth, and a competing plan on the health care exchange offered by Maine Community Health Options. He said some subscribers may want to save money by using the narrower network offered by MaineHealth.

“There are opportunities for consumers to make decisions for a lower-cost option. Some people will want to do that,” said Dugan.

Chuck Gill, spokesman for Central Maine Medical Center, said the hospital in Lewiston has been getting calls and questions from patients who are concerned about the prospect of changing health plans.

“Maine people are too smart to be fooled by Anthem and MaineHealth. People deserve better. There are two Portland companies telling people it’s OK to have to change doctors and drive a long distance for care,” Gill said.

Bill Young, a former CEO of Central Maine Medical Center, said the hospital was excluded from the Anthem-MaineHealth network because it has a long history of competing and siphoning away patients from Maine Medical Center.

“Maine Medical Center, to the citizens of this community, they are the evil empire,” Young said. “I can understand our non-relationship with MMC. What I can’t understand is why an insurance company that is committed to the state of Maine would be doing this.”

The Bureau of Insurance will hold its final hearing on Sept. 9 in Augusta and then decide whether Anthem will be allowed to move individual subscribers to new plans.

Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

jhall@pressherald.com

Twitter: @JessicaHall


Correction: This story was revised at 2:49 p.m., Aug. 30, 2013, to state that the Bureau of Insurance will hold its final hearing on Sept. 9 in Augusta, not Presque Isle, as reported in a previous version.