BANGOR – The Maine State Chamber of Commerce teamed up with the state’s largest health insurance provider on Thursday to announce the rollout of a new product and a new purchasing group aimed at making it easier for small businesses to insure their employees.
The news, released at press conferences in Portland, Lewiston and Bangor, generated cautious responses in Augusta where Gov. John Baldacci’s DirigoChoice insurance plan, which insures the same population, is undergoing major revision critical to its survival.
The Chamber BlueOptions coverage, to be offered by Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maine beginning Jan. 1, 2007, will offer employers with 50 or fewer workers – including sole proprietors – a package of five different insurance plans with different costs, benefits and out-of-pocket spending requirements.
Employers must be members of their local chambers to participate, and 60 percent of a company’s workers must agree to sign up for the benefit. Individual employees will select the plan best-suited to their needs. Employers that offer workplace wellness programs can generate a 2 percent discount off the cost of the policy.
Anthem spokesman Mark Ishkanian said Thursday that the cost of the plans will be determined by next week. Businesses, he said, should not expect the new package to be priced very differently from comparable plans already available in Maine. After a year, he said, the cost may become more competitive for all participants if they demonstrate limited utilization of their benefits.
For the past two years, the Governor’s Office of Health Policy and Finance and the nonprofit Dirigo Health Agency have been providing coverage to the same small-business population through the controversial DirigoChoice insurance product. Officials on Thursday greeted the Chamber’s news cautiously, welcoming more competition in Maine’s small group market but faulting state Chamber president Dana Connors, who sits on the Dirigo Health Agency board, and insurer Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, which administers the DirigoChoice program, for not being more open about their project.
“In an ideal world, we would all be planning together,” said Trish Riley, director of the governor’s office. Riley noted that Anthem and other insurers, the business community, health providers and others are currently meeting in a special group commissioned by the governor to strengthen Dirigo’s system for generating the subsidies that help keep it more affordable than other plans with similar benefits.
Like Riley, Dr. Robert McAfee, chairman of the Dirigo Health Agency board, said Thursday that additional competition for Maine’s small-business insurance market would be beneficial, especially if plans cover preventive health services and medications, as the BlueOptions plans are expected to do.
“Maine needs to build a healthier population with less need to use the health care system,” he said.
But McAfee said he was surprised to learn of the Chamber’s announcement, especially since Connors was present at an agency board meeting this past Monday and neglected to raise the issue.
“I’m disappointed that he didn’t choose to share it at that time,” McAfee said. “It would have been an interesting opportunity to alert us.”
Connors expressed surprise at McAfee’s criticism.
“Maybe that was my mistake,” he said. “But I don’t see [BlueOptions] as something that’s going to take away from Dirigo in the least … Dirigo’s appeal is in its subsidies. This is just another product.”
More information on the Chamber BlueOptions plan will be available online at www.anthem.com/