AUGUST 21, 2009
No Maine Miracle Cure
Another state ‘public option’ that failed.
- Want a preview of ObamaCare in action? Sneak a look at what has happened in Maine. In 2003, the state to great fanfare enacted its own version of universal health care. Democratic Governor John Baldacci signed the plan into law with a bevy of familiar promises. By 2009, it would cover all of Maine’s approximately 128,000 uninsured citizens. System-wide controls on hospital and physician costs would hold down insurance premiums. There would be no tax increases. The program was going to provide insurance for everyone and save businesses and patients money at the same time.
After five years, fiscal realities as brutal as the waves that crash along Maine’s famous coastline have hit the insurance plan. The system that was supposed to save money has cost taxpayers $155 million and is still rising.
Here’s how the program was supposed to work. Two government programs would cover the uninsured. First the legislature greatly expanded MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program. Today Maine families with incomes of up to $44,000 a year are eligible; 22% of the population is now in Medicaid, roughly twice the national average.
Then the state created a “public option” known as DirigoChoice. (Dirigo is the state motto, meaning “I Lead.”) This plan would compete with private plans such as Blue Cross. To entice lower income Mainers to enroll, it offered taxpayer-subsidized premiums. The plan’s original funding source was $50 million of federal stimulus money the state got in 2003. Over time, the plan was to be “paid for by savings in the health-care system.” This is precisely the promise of ObamaCare. Maine saved by squeezing payments to hospitals and physicians.
The program flew off track fast. At its peak in 2006, only about 15,000 people had enrolled in the DirigoChoice program. That number has dropped to below 10,000, according to the state’s own reporting. About two-thirds of those who enrolled already had insurance, which they dropped in favor of the public option and its subsidies. Instead of 128,000 uninsured in the program today, the actual number is just 3,400. Despite the giant expansions in Maine’s Medicaid program and the new, subsidized public choice option, the number of uninsured in the state today is only slightly lower that in 2004 when the program began.
Why did this happen? Among the biggest reasons is a severe adverse selection problem: The sickest, most expensive patients crowded into DirigoChoice, unbalancing its insurance pool and raising costs. That made it unattractive for healthier and lower-risk enrollees. And as a result, few low-income Mainers have been able to afford the premiums, even at subsidized rates.
This problem was exacerbated because since the early 1990s Maine has required insurers to adhere to community rating and guaranteed issue, which requires that insurers cover anyone who applies, regardless of their health condition and at a uniform premium. These rules—which are in the Obama plan—have relentlessly driven up insurance costs in Maine, especially for healthy people.
The Maine Heritage Policy Center, which has tracked the plan closely, points out that largely because of these insurance rules, a healthy male in Maine who is 30 and single pays a monthly premium of $762 in the individual market; next door in New Hampshire he pays $222 a month. The Granite State doesn’t have community rating and guaranteed issue.
One proposal to get people into the DirigoChoice system is to reduce the premiums, presumably to give the uninsured a larger incentive to join. But that would explode the program’s costs when it already can’t pay its bills. A program that was supposed to save money by reducing health-care waste and inefficiencies has seen a 74% increase in premiums. But even those inflated payments can’t keep the program out of the red.
Last year, DirigoCare was so desperate for cash that the legislature broke its original promise of no tax hikes and proposed an infusion of funds through a beer, wine and soda tax, similar to what has been floated to pay for the Obama plan. Maine voters rejected these taxes by two to one. Then this year the legislature passed a 2% tax on paid health insurance claims. Taxing paid insurance claims sounds a tad churlish, but the previous funding formula was so complicated that it was costing the state $1 million a year in lawsuits.
Unlike the federal government, Maine has a balanced budget requirement. So out of fiscal necessity, the state has now capped the enrollment in the program and allowed no new entrants. Now there is a waiting list. DirigoChoice has become yet another expensive, failed experiment in government-run health care, alongside similar fiascoes in Massachusetts and Tennessee.
Not everyone sees it this way. Noting the similarities between the Maine program and the Congressional initiative, Karynlee Harrington, the executive director of the Dirigo Health Agency, boasted recently: “DirigoChoice is consistent with what we think the definition of a public health option is.” It certainly is.
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A12