By Ramona du Houx

April 15th, 2009

While healthcare costs skyrocketed nationwide as premiums increased, Maine valiantly pushed to cover people who fell between the cracks, not making quite enough to cover themselves, family or businesses.

“These are working people, business people. They are people who want to be able to provide for themselves and their families,” said Governor John Baldacci.

Dirigo Health, established as a step toward universal health care coverage six years ago, can be attributed to the decreasing the number of people that were uninsured and underinsured during a time those roles increased across the nation. For five years the rate of uninsured dropped in Maine.

Some people covered by DirigoChoice, the health insurance arm of Dirigo Health, lives were saved because the healthcare paid for preventative care measures. The opposition lead by Maine’s Heritage Policy Center, and lobbyists hired to insure the status quo, attacked Dirigo’s potential from the start.

The reality that lives were saved, businesses insured more workers, and the people enrolled in DirgoChoice could feel secure having healthcare happened to more than 29,000 people.

Last year Paul Hollingsworth co-owner of Henry and Marty’s Restaurant said, “Two of our employees signed up after never having health insurance in their lives. Dirigo is very important to them.”

Then the program faced an out of state advertising spending spree that proclaimed the nickel or dime on wine, or beer, really was a tax that people couldn’t afford. As a result of the advertising blitz against the healthcare program voters withdrew the mechanism that would have covered the program’s costs.

Now, close to 10,000, people who are enrolled in the program maybe at risk from loosing this healthcare coverage. Those people still need Dirigo’s lifeline and time is running out. According to Trish Riley, director of the Governor’s Office of Health Policy and Finance, a plan must be enacted by December for the program to continue.

Governor Baldacci has proposed a bill introduced by Rep. Sharon Treat, ‘An Act to Stabilize Funding and Enable DirigoChoice to Reach More Uninsured,’ which Riley said would fix the problem.

The legislation directs Dirigo’s board of trustees to revamp the program to make it more affordable. The bill also replaces the savings offset payment with a monthly payment from insurance companies that equals 2.14 percent of their total claim payments. It’s estimated that would generate $42 million a year.

It’s basically a levy on insurance companies. The same companies that continue to increase premiums to pay for their lack of streamlined administration.

Having a monthly payment makes the funding stable. According to officials with the current system it takes two years for funding to work through the bureaucratic savings offset payment system. The new system would reduce administrative costs associated with rate-setting proceedings.

In prepared remarks, Treat said the program “may well prove to be a bridge program as we move to a more comprehensive state or federal health care system. For now it remains an important option for many Mainers.”

Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell supports the Governor’s bill and testified in committee saying, “Dirigo is needed. You have a chance to turn this ship around.”

Many other state representatives testified emotionally in favor of the bill, saying that they are the voices of the people who are counting on the program for their healthcare coverage.

In addition to offering health insurance, the program covers some state Medicaid recipients, and convenes boards responsible for working to contain costs. Because of the savings offset payment funding issues the state capped enrollment in September 2007.

There is still a great demand for the program with a waiting list of 2,000 people.