PORTLAND – Four of Maine’s five gubernatorial hopefuls offered different takes on the state’s DirigoChoice health insurance Thursday, but it was a sharp exchange between two particular candidates that sparked the interest of the business breakfast crowd at the Holiday Inn By the Bay.
Democratic Gov. John E. Baldacci, Republican candidate Chandler Woodcock, Green Independent Party nominee Pat LaMarche and independent bidder Barbara Merrill engaged in an hour-long discussion for a sold-out audience of 400 members of the Portland Chamber of Commerce.
Phillip Napier, a convicted felon and the fifth candidate on the ballot, was not invited to attend because of low polling numbers.
Merrill, a state representative from Appleton who has repeatedly emphasized her independent status as a major asset in confronting partisan divisions at the State House, did so again Thursday during a discussion on the impacts of sprawl.
Merrill said a Land for Maine’s Future bond never made it to the voters this year because the governor had “played partisan games” with the state budget and Republicans had countered by playing “partisan games” with a proposed bond package.
“As a result, we were not able to put before the voters of Maine a bond of any significance,” she said.
Woodcock, a Farmington state senator who until Thursday rarely confronted any of his opponents pointedly, turned to Merrill and said partisanship was to be expected at times when two parties harbor significant ideological and philosophical differences. He then pointed out that Merrill had not always been the independent she is today.
“Barbara was also a member of the governor’s party until she decided to run for governor and changed her party in January of this year,” Woodcock told the audience.
As Merrill attempted to respond, Fred Nutter, the event’s moderator, cautioned her by saying, “That’s enough.”
“They do this all the time, Fred,” chimed in LaMarche, eliciting some laughs from the audience.
But Merrill wasn’t about to let the remark pass unanswered and re-engaged the Republican while answering a subsequent question.
“And Chandler – if I could – I’m surprised at you,” she said. “Yes, I was a Democrat until January – but you might want to check my voting record. I did not vote for the majority budget.”
The four candidates dealt with a variety of topics during the event, among them the current accessibility to health care by low-income Mainers.
Citing a report that indicated DirigoChoice health insurance premiums were six times higher in Maine than state-assisted insurance in Massachusetts or New Hampshire, Nutter asked how the candidates would make insurance more affordable and thereby boost enrollment in the Dirigo program.
Woodcock said Dirigo needed to be reformed since the state now has 11,000 more uninsured Mainers than when the program began. He added that, as governor, he would be careful not to restrict health care to those currently served under the program as his administration worked to allow the purchase of insurance from out-of-state carriers. Woodcock said Mainers should also be allowed to menu-plan their policies and purchase only the products that best meet their needs.
“We need to address the issues of health insurance,” he said. “Dirigo needs to be reformed – not thrown out.”
Merrill once again emphasized how Dirigo was an example of the “partisan nonsense” that goes on at the State House, with Republicans doing all that they can to shelve the program and Democrats refusing to acknowledge its problems.
“The truth is somewhere in the middle,” she said. “Dirigo has enjoyed some success, but clearly it needs to be fixed.”
Merrill said she would explore trying to establish a high-risk insurance pool in the state and include more young people in insurance programs to lower costs.
Baldacci lamented that health care is “complicated and not a 30-second sound bite.” He said Maine’s insurance problems deserved a national solution, but that since it was not forthcoming, he advanced the Dirigo program.
The governor said there are 16,617 Mainers enrolled in Dirigo – more than 2,000 of whom are self-employed. He said a woman told him her son was able to receive diabetes treatment through the program.
“It saved a family, it saves lives and it saves money,” Baldacci said. “Is it perfect? No. Does it need improvement? Yes. In the true Maine fashion, we’re developing consensus around a blue ribbon commission as to how to move forward.”
LaMarche said several “blue ribbon commissions” had all agreed over the years that universal health care was the best solution to Maine’s health care needs and that her plan would provide such a program through payroll tax deductions.
“We do not have a model of this in the United States, but we have a model of this in every industrial and developed nation in the world,” she said. “We have the most expensive health care and the least effective overall health care. We die three years sooner than those people who live in the other countries that have universal health care.”