Dirigo works! Maine citizens fed up with attacks on Dirigo Health

Maine’s Dirigo Health Plan is working! Supporters gathered at the Maine Statehouse in Augusta on Jan. 12 to rally support for the program that Gov. John Baldacci, Democrat of Bangor, is fighting hard to preserve.

John Henderson, diabetic from the age of 4, challenged Maine legislators. “If any of you out there don’t think that Dirigo is worth your active, enthusiastic support and vote, then I have a challenge for you. Drop your health insurance and go without for a year. Drop your family’s health insurance for a year. See what the 130,000 uninsured people of Maine have to contend with. See what it is like to stare sickness, and bankruptcy, in the face. If you are not willing to do that, then you are morally obligated to support Dirigo.”

In 2003, at his first press conference as governor of Maine, Baldacci announced that his number-one political priority was to guarantee quality, affordable health coverage to all Maine citizens.

Recognizing that the state was unprepared to institute single-payer health care, the governor called on all Maine “stakeholders” (e.g. citizens, physicians, nurses, hospitals, businesses and insurance companies) to work together to insure universal coverage by 2009. After months of cooperative study by all stakeholders, Maine’s Dirigo Health legislation passed by sizeable margins in both Houses of the Legislature and was signed into law. “Dirigo,” Latin for “I lead,” is the state’s motto.

Dirigo Health, which consists of five components, is more than just health insurance. Four of the five Dirigo Health Commissions were designed to assess the state’s current health care delivery system.

The Commission to Study Maine’s Hospitals has already filed its report, resulting in important legislation: (1) hospitals must report the income of for-profit as well as not-for-profit subsidiaries, (2) all contributions to the salaries of top hospital executives must be made public, and (3) hospitals in the state must collaborate, using the same terminology in describing certain in- and out-patient procedures and reporting their charges for these same procedures.

The Commission to create a State Health Plan released its first draft last November. Based on citizen input, public health data and economic research, the plan demonstrates the many values of a primary care, preventive approach to health care. The state health plan will prioritize addressing obesity (including good nutrition and physical exercise), chronic medical illnesses, substance abuse, tobacco dependence and depression.

DirigoChoice, the first public/private health insurance collaboration in the nation, is designed to provide access to quality health care for all Mainers by 2009.

Just over a year ago, DirigoChoice began providing health insurance to small businesses and individuals throughout the state. Today, DirigoChoice has demonstrated profound successes. Over 8,000 Mainers (formerly uninsured — or underinsured by expensive, high deductible policies that in fact discourage seeking preventive, primary care) receive affordable, comprehensive health care coverage. At the same time, Dirigo Health has saved Mainer citizens over 43 million health care dollars through a wide range of cost-containment measures.

Unfortunately, from its inception Dirigo Health has been the victim of concerted attacks by in- and out-of-state insurance companies, corporate health care and ultra-conservative interests. Recently the Portland Press Herald reported that four top Republican legislators have created a political action committee to discredit Maine’s health care initiative. The PAC has spent $10,000 to run 60-second radio ads blasting Dirigo on 10 radio stations across the state. PAC leaders have admitted that money was raised from out-of-state individuals “involved in the insurance industry.”

In response to this partisan political opposition, Maine state citizen action groups, labor, small business owners and individuals enrolled in the DirigoChoice program held a press conference at the Statehouse on Jan. 12.

“Recent attacks from insurers and some legislative leaders have compelled us to create a forum to let the voices of real Maine people be heard,” said Faye Pertuis, a member of the Maine People’s Alliance and DirigoChoice enrollee. “Thousands of individuals are enrolled in and benefiting from the DirigoChoice program, and many more were on a waiting list and are now able to enroll, but their voices are being drowned out by the attacks from Republican leaders and the insurance industry. We’re counting on our legislators to put the Maine people first. We elected our leaders to represent us, not big insurance companies.”

Sara Stalman (sarastalman@yahoo.com) is chair of the Maine Peoples Alliance Physician Group.