Critics Say Low Enrollment Raises Concerns Over Maine’s Dirgo While Backers See ‘Solid Start’

January 3, 2005

Gov. John Baldacci’s nationally touted health insurance program went into effect Saturday with 1,800 Mainers signed up as the first card-carrying members of DirigoChoice.

But the number is far below the 31,000 people the administration hopes to enroll by year’s and, and skeptics argue such a beginning enrollment does not bode well for the program’s future.

“Based on their projections, they’re failing miserably,” said Tarren Bragdon of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, which sees DirigoChoice as poorly conceived and prefers free-market ideas for lowering health-care costs.

Administered by Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, DirigoChoice is using most of $52 million in start-up funds to offer subsidies to Mainers who make as much as three times the poverty level. The Baldacci administration hopes employers will enroll MaineCare-eligible people in DirigoChoice and draw down federal dollars.

But critics say such a small response shows the program is not affordable enough. Without subsidies, a single person would have to pay about $287 monthly for a plan with a $1,750 deductible. A family would pay $860 for similar plans.

Despite some searching for holes in the program, supports argue they will do whatever they can to meet Baldacci’s pledge of universal health care by 2010.

Karynlee Harrington, executive director of the Dirigo Health agency, said enrollment numbers were “slightly lower than expected.”

But it takes time for small-business owners to decide whether they can make the minimum 60 percent employer contribution required under DirigoChoice or find enough employees willing to participate, she said.

The fact that the program missed its original start date of July 1, 2004, also may have cost it some clients who didn’t want to wait, she said.

“We’re off to a solid start,” she said. “We will continue to do the things we need to do to promote the program and to make sure people understand the value of the program.”

The program offers 100 percent coverage for preventive services such as checkups and mammograms, and equal coverage for mental health ailments. For income-eligible members, discounts can be applied to monthly costs, deductibles and co-payments.

Harrington said she expects to see interest in the program spike when radio and print advertisements resume this month.

And more Mainers may enroll after they find out whether they qualify for Medicaid under the expansion in April and can join DirigoChoice for free.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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