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Maine Likely To Repeal Health Care Reform

You know how the rest of the country looks to Massachusetts to see how health care reform might play out nationally? (Latest example: PBS this week.) Well, now, the rest of the country may soon start looking to Maine to see how a repeal of health care reform might play out nationally.

Maine's new governor-elect is Paul LePage, a colorful Republican who knew homelessness and deprivation as the oldest of 18 children in a poor Maine family, but went on to become a successful businessman and mayor.

During his campaign, he pledged to "repeal and replace" the state's groundbreaking 2003 health care reform, "Dirigo Health." (Dirigo means "I lead" and is the state's motto.) He called it a "costly failure" and said it had "cost taxpayers more than $160 million to cover just 3,400 uninsured Mainers," a charge the reform's backers contest.

Now, it's looking like Dirigo Health "may be one of the first casualties of the Republican landslide in state capitals," reports Stateline, a news Website on state politics funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Stateline's Pamela M. Prah reports:

Dirigo was the brainchild of outgoing Governor John Baldacci, who sought to dramatically increase coverage for the uninsured while lowering the costs associated with hospital care. A key to the program was encouraging small businesses to buy coverage for their employees by making plans affordable and subsidizing coverage for individuals and families on a sliding scale based on income.

But the program faced battles over funding from the start. In 2007, Maine capped enrollment for two years until lawmakers could agree on a funding fix. The problem was further complicated when voters in 2008 rolled back the tax on soda and alcohol that the Legislature figured would pay for Dirigo. Even its supporters admit the program has never lived up to its promise of serving as many as 180,000 of Maine's 1.2 million residents by 2009.

Maine is facing a $1 billion budget deficit for next year, and Gov.-elect LePage has said he'll be cutting back social services. A leader of his transition team told The New York Times, "Dirigo will be diri-gone." But the official later said the quote was incomplete. He explains, and a pro-Dirigo state official defends the program, in a Portland Press Herald article here.

Stateline reports that it's likely that Gov.-elect LePage will have the political support to repeal Dirigo Health; Repubicans now control all three branches of government in Maine for the first time since 1962.

So if Dirigo Health is indeed repealed, what might replace it and what are the possible lessons to be learned? I have a call in to the LePaul transition team to ask...

This program aired on November 18, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth blog.

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