Rep. Bruce Poliquin joined the majority of Republicans in voting Thursday to narrowly pass health care overhaul legislation known as the American Health Care Act.

Poliquin, who represents Maine’s 2nd District, was among several Republican House members who had not indicated which way they were leaning, but he finally hopped off the fence and provided what proved to be a crucial vote.

In a conference call with reporters before the vote, he said the bill represents the best parts of several previous attempts at reform and Republican efforts to undo former President Barack Obama’s signature 2010 legislation, the Affordable Care Act.

“This affects only the 7 percent of Maine residents who have Obamacare policies,” he said. “People sent me to Congress to solve serious problems that are affecting Maine people.”

In his 15-minute exchange with Maine reporters, Poliquin repeated the same point multiple times about the small percentage of Mainers who would be affected – the roughly 80,000 people in the state who have insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

But that claim isn’t true. The bill still includes cuts to some Medicaid programs for low-income people, something that the House’s Freedom Caucus insisted upon, and Maine had about 270,000 people enrolled in the program, known as MaineCare, as of January. There also is a provision in the health bill that would allow states to let insurers charge more for customers with pre-existing medical conditions. Additional impacts are unknown at this point.

A major flash point of the bill is how it would affect people with pre-existing conditions. Poliquin said one of the biggest reasons he will support the new bill is because he’s convinced it “ensures everyone will have access, even those with pre-existing conditions … at a price they can afford.”

ASSURANCES FROM TRUMP AND PENCE

He said he met with both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, and was assured that people in rural areas and older people would be “able to get insurance at the same price with pre-existing conditions as people who are healthy.” Poliquin referenced the recent Republican move to add $8 billion to a national pool of funds to help subsidize premiums for people with pre-existing conditions.

That approach is modeled after a so-called “invisible high-risk pool” that Maine implemented briefly before the system was eclipsed by the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

Critics, however, maintain that the new bill allows insurers to raise rates on people with pre-existing conditions to the point where they will not be affordable. They say that even with the addition of the $8 billion, the national pool would cover only a fraction of people who have pre-existing conditions.

Poliquin took questions only from television reporters who participated in Thursday’s conference calls. He would not take questions from newspaper reporters or other media outlets.

The final vote was 217-213, which means 20 Republicans voted “No.”

The measure now goes to the Senate, where its fate could be much different. Republicans have a narrower margin in that chamber, 52-48, meaning it would take only three senators to kill the bill. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of the few remaining moderate Republican senators, would be among those closely watched as a possible swing vote.

During a hastily organized news conference at the Maine State House, Democratic state lawmakers blasted the Republicans’ bill as an attempt to fix a political problem of their own creation, not a health care policy problem.

But they directed most of their scorn at Poliquin, a former state treasurer whom the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added this week to the group’s list of “most vulnerable incumbents.”

‘INCREASINGLY DIFFICULT’ TO GET CARE

“The worst part about this is that the congressman and all of the people in Washington, they’re on government-sponsored health care,” Senate Minority Leader Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said before accusing Republicans of voting to take away health care for many people. “That is so hypocritical. I just can’t even believe someone like that would show his face back in Maine after taking a vote on that.”

Added Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick, a physician from Bangor: “Congressman Poliquin has turned his back on the poor, the low-income, the elderly, the rural people of Maine and they are going to have an increasingly difficult time getting health care.”

Poliquin had gone to great lengths this week to avoid going on the record about the bill.

On Tuesday, he reportedly avoided a reporter who tried to ask him how he would vote.

The encounter was recounted by Jim Newell for Slate.

After he was asked the question, Poliquin “said nothing and made a beeline to the restroom,” Newell wrote. “Unfortunately it was the door to the women’s restroom that he had first run to, so he corrected himself and went into the men’s room. When he emerged several minutes later, he was wearing his earbuds and scurried away.”

On Wednesday, Poliquin spokesman Brendan Conley dismissed that report as “farcical” and said the congressman was still reviewing additional changes to the legislation.

Poliquin unexpectedly flew home to Maine on Wednesday to deal with a family emergency. He revealed Thursday that his father had a stroke but was expected to recover. Poliquin was back in Washington by Thursday morning in time to cast his vote for the health care bill.

This is the Republicans’ second attempt at a health care overhaul since Trump was sworn in. The first try failed after moderate and far-right members disagreed on portions of the bill and Speaker Paul Ryan was forced to pull it before a vote.

PRESSURE FROM PARTY, HOME DISTRICTS

There was a lot of pressure to get a win on health care for the Republicans and Trump, whose approval rating was at 42 percent, according to Gallup poll earlier this week. He campaigned hard on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare, and Republicans in general have been fighting to weaken it for years.

But there also is pressure for many House members in their home districts, and because they serve two-year terms, it’s virtually always an election year. Poliquin, who was re-elected last year to his second term, represents a district that seems to be growing more conservative, but, depending on his Democratic opponent, keeping his seat would not be considered a lock.

Maine’s other House member, Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, voted against the bill, which she called “reckless.

“The Republican health care bill spells trouble for all Americans. It will deny 133 million people with pre-existing conditions access to affordable coverage, 24 million people will immediately lose health insurance, older Mainers could be charged up to five times more for coverage – all while giving a huge tax cut to the top 400 earners in the U.S., including President Trump,” Pingree said in a statement. “Republicans have long said that they are the party of fiscal responsibility, but we do not even know what this bill, which impacts one-sixth of our (gross domestic product), will cost the taxpayers.”

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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