The weekend’s snowstorm cancelled a state-sponsored focus group on “Tough Choices” in health care – quieting Republican criticism that the 1,000-person forum was simply a setup by the administration to get the answers they wanted on curbing hospital costs and implementing health care mandates.

Organizers say the group was intended to represent an unbiased opinion on what tradeoffs Mainers are willing to make to bring health care costs down and get better service.

The focus group – planned for sites in South Portland, Augusta and Brewer – was being put on with $350,000 in grant money and being run by the national non-profit AmericaSpeaks, which Republicans characterized as a liberal organization. Its founder did do consulting work for the Clinton White House and Al Gore.

Saturday’s snowstorm forced the state to call of the focus group on Saturday, and because of AmericaSpeaks limited availability, the session has not yet been rescheduled.

More than 1,000 residents were invited by the state to participate, culled from an original list of 25,000 and chosen to represent a cross section of ages, sexes, occupations and income levels.

The group was going to vote on various aspects of the proposed state health plan or policy blueprint, now being developed by the administration as part of the Dirigo Health legislation passed in 2003.

Topics ranged from capping hospital and insurance costs to taxing unhealthy habits in order to discourage smoking and overeating and help pay for health care initiatives.

Ellen Schneiter, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Health Policy and Finance, said an invited focus group format was chosen rather than an open forum to prevent special interest groups from stacking the meetings.

“If you open the door to anybody, you get the same cast of characters,” she said, explaining that at other Dirigo Health meetings when the audience is asked if they’re attached to the hospitals in some way, “they all raise their hands.”

Sen. Carol Weston, R-Waldo, assistant minority leader, said the focus group appeared “very contrived,” and she questioned AmericaSpeaks’ role, saying it “certainly has a partisan past.”

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Hancock, currently serving on the Health and Human Services Committee, said “this is like a staged, paid, invitation-only event.” Participants were to be paid mileage and child-care costs.

“This is just the beginning of the conversation,” Schneiter said of the focus groups before they got cancelled. “We don’t know what they’re going to say.”

The Maine Health Access Foundation, formed when Blue Cross and Blue Shield was sold to Anthem in Maine, gave the administration $300,000 toward the cost of the focus group. That same organization has funded the marketing for DirigoChoice health insurance, to the tune of $557,000.

Victoria Wallack, Maine Statehouse News Service

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