Maine Panel Embraces Mandatory Health Coverage

By | December 26, 2006

Elected officials should consider increases in a variety of state taxes as they look for ways to make health insurance available to more Mainers, a panel that’s been studying the issue for several months voted last week.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Dirigo Health also voted to ask the governor’s office to look into the idea of creating a system of mandated employer group coverage for workers, and requiring individuals above certain income levels to get coverage for themselves.

The commission’s recommendations to fund Maine’s Dirigo Health program and expand health coverage to the 130,000 Mainers who lack insurance will be bound in a report and submitted to Gov. John Baldacci, who created the panel earlier this year.

Baldacci will then submit an omnibus bill to the Legislature incorporating reforms he believes have merit, said Trish Riley, director of the Governor’s Office for Health Policy and Finance.

“You’ve done a great deal for the people of Maine, if some of our really good suggestions get adopted,” Sandra Featherman, chairwoman of the Blue Ribbon Commission, said as it completed its work. “This is history-making if it works and we’ve taken some big steps.”

In a series of votes, the commission expressed support for increasing taxes on cigarettes, snacks, soda, beer and wine to pay for expanded health coverage. The panel did not say all of those taxes need to be raised, leaving open options that some could be adopted and others not.

It also voted to continue to draw support from millions of dollars in savings resulting from fewer bad debts and less charity care needed as more people receive health insurance. Reforms to make individual coverage more affordable were also embraced.

But the commission rejected proposals calling for the ideas of payroll taxes, insurance premium taxes and increased sales taxes.

Featherman said that while there were major differences among the commission members, everyone agreed that Maine must expand health care access.

“This is tough stuff,” she said.

The proposals calling for employer and individual insurance mandates borrow from programs that have already been adopted in a handful of other states, including Massachusetts. Everyone in Massachusetts will be required to have health insurance by July 2007, or face tax penalties.

Poor and lower-income Massachusetts residents will have access to government subsidized plans. Businesses with 11 or more full-time workers must offer health insurance to their employees or pay annual fees of $295 per worker. Companies that take other steps to insure workers can avoid the fees.

An employer mandate will not sit well with Maine businesses, said David Clough, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business.

“NFIB will oppose this outrageous and ill-conceived proposal,” Clough said in an e-mail. “The commission failed to consider the effects on small-business owners.”

Maine’s first step toward universal health care came with passage of Baldacci’s Dirigo Health program in 2003, which the governor said was providing 10,000 individuals and small businesses access to affordable health insurance as of this summer.

Dirigo will cost the state $57 million next year, administration officials say.

Members of the blue ribbon panel included representatives of business, insurers, consumers, labor, the Dirigo Health Agency Board, enrolled Dirigo businesses and the Governor’s Office of Health Policy and Finance.

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