Health Care—Affordable for Laid-Off Workers with DirigoChoice

by Ramona du Houx

Maine recently increased its ranking nationally to the eighth healthiest state in the nation, taking 8,000 people off the uninsured rolls. The decreases in uninsured residents since Dirigo Health came into effect took Maine from having the highest percent of uninsured residents in New England to the lowest.

The Muskie School of Public Service recent report stated that compared with similar state programs in Washington, New Mexico, and New York, DirigoChoice has the highest success rate in attracting small businesses. About 32 percent of DirigoChoice members are small business employees, compared with 26 percent in New York, 3 percent in New Mexico, and less than 1 percent in Washington State.

When Brunswick Naval Air Station announced it would be closing and when the Georgia Pacific mill announced it was closing, the governor sent in teams to help the workers and offered them DirigoChoice.

Four years ago, the federal Trade Adjustment Act included a tax credit for health care, so that workers who lost their jobs could still get coverage. There was one hitch: the laid-off workers still had to come up with 35 percent of the cost — the federal credit only covered 65 percent — for qualified premiums to be paid on their behalf to their insurance providers.

That 35 percent could be hundreds of dollars. To someone collecting unemployment it wasn’t realistic. For some it meant the decision between food and health care.

Recently the Health Coverage Tax Credit was combined with DirigoChoice, making health care for laid-off workers within their reach.

"It is making a huge difference for families in Old Town," said Dan Bird, vice president of Local 80 of the papermakers union, who was recently hired by Red Shield, the company that bought the former Georgia Pacific Mill. "It really has helped to relieve the anxiety."

According to the Bangor Daily News, out of 5,111 eligible workers in Maine only 404 had signed on to pay their premium to receive discounted health-care coverage. With DirigoChoice’s additional discount, it’s estimated that some of the eligible unemployed could receive coverage for as low as $30 a month. Now that the discount is in effect, over 120 eligible unemployed workers have signed up.

Obviously the demand for health-care coverage is ever present, but until now has been cost prohibitive for many displaced workers.

DirigoChoice has become a solution," said Commissioner of the Department of Labor Laura Fortman.

"It remains true that this state, with Dirigo as a tool, is holding its own in a battle for coverage, a battle most states are losing," stated the Bangor Daily News in a November 17th editorial. "The federal government, slow on so many issues regarding the effects of free trade on workers and the serious need for universal access to health-care coverage, has left the issue too often to the states. Maine was able to respond because of Dirigo, and while the state has yet to solve the debilitating problem of reducing costs within the health-care system, it should note the success in this area for workers facing substantial challenges in their lives."