Lawmakers have an opportunity to help make healthcare more affordable to tens of thousands of people in Maine.

As a physician, I see firsthand how many of my patients struggle to afford the healthcare they need to be well, stay healthy and live full lives. Challenges such as paying for prescription drugs or paying out-of-pocket costs for critical tests are only magnified during the pandemic and resulting recession.

Maine has a solution that can help reduce high healthcare costs for our citizens.

A federal assessment on for-profit insurance corporations ended at the end of last year. As a result, health insurers will be seeing a massive profit boost at a time when many of them are already experiencing billion-dollar profits – even during the pandemic. Since 2014, this federal assessment has generated revenue for the federal government to pay for health coverage that, starting on New Year’s Day, evaporated. Insurance companies are pocketing the money.

Maine, like other states, can continue to collect the assessment and use it to help improve affordability for people who can’t currently afford coverage. Policymakers can make this happen by passing a state-based assessment on insurance corporations that, in turn, could be used to help Mainers.

The revenue Maine generates from this assessment will go directly to reduce the overall cost of healthcare for low- and middle-income families in Maine. The state-based assessment could help lower the cost of premiums, eliminate out-of-pocket costs and reduce prescription drug costs – all of which have increased. Too many of my patients struggle to keep up with these rising healthcare costs as they’re outpacing wage growth.

For insurance companies, the state assessment will simply replace a federal fee they had already been paying. Instead of allowing insurance companies to pocket the difference, a state-based assessment will ensure that money continues to be collected and used to support Mainers. By making healthcare more affordable to more people in Maine, including 10 percent of Mainers who remain uninsured, insurance companies and the state’s health care sector would gain a larger pool of customers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly sharpened Maine’s, and the nation’s, focus on protecting people and ensuring they have healthcare. By continuing to collect the insurance assessment at the state level, Maine can help Mainers who have lost their jobs or taken pay cuts, and better support our neighbors in need who have struggled to access affordable coverage. Affordable, quality healthcare has never been more essential than at this moment in time.

While Maine’s governor and legislators have worked together to explore and move forward meaningful and innovative ways to help keep premiums in check, more work must be done to help make healthcare more affordable to all families in Maine.

According to AARP Maine, one out of every four people in Maine can’t afford their medications. A study by the Commonwealth Fund shows Maine families pay more for healthcare premiums as a proportion of household income than any other state except South Dakota.

In the effort to reduce Maine families’ healthcare costs, the experiences of other states can be instructive. New Jersey’s state-based assessment is expected to raise $200 million in 2021 and expand quality healthcare coverage to low and middle-income working individuals and families. Maryland’s assessment, enacted in 2019, and has used it to help reduce premiums in the individual market. Other states, including Colorado, are continuing to collect the assessment and others, like New Mexico are proposing legislation to do so.

The ending of the fee at the federal level has been described as a windfall for insurance companies. According to Axios, one insurance company CEO told investors at a Goldman Sachs conference that the repeal of the federal HIA is “a substantial benefit to the company’s stakeholders.” During a pandemic, health care is a life-and-death necessity. We should all make our voices heard and demand that people be put ahead of profits.

As the Maine State Legislature is in session, continuing to collect the health insurance assessment at the state level could provide badly needed revenue at a time when our state budget needs it the most. It must be a top priority and deserves action after a difficult, trying year. My patients’ health depends on it.

— Special to the Press Herald


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