Lawmakers vote to give more Maine children access to affordable health care

Maine lawmakers are backing a bill to dramatically expand the reach of the state-run children’s health insurance program, raising the income eligibility cap to 300% of the poverty level, eliminating premiums and the waiting periods and adding the 19 and 20 years. .

The law project, DL 372, would raise the income eligibility limit for a family of four from $59,000 per year to $83,250 per year, adding about 7,800 Maine children to the program. It would remove monthly premiums and the three-month wait following the loss of an employer health plan.

According to the sponsor of the bill, this overhaul would help solve two of Maine’s most pressing problems: the labor shortage that is hurting Maine’s economy and the lack of affordable health insurance for residents. Maine’s most vulnerable, her children.

“We compete with the rest of New England for young families to grow our workforce,” said Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth. “But our neighboring states have a huge advantage because their children have full access to affordable health care, when we could be doing more.”

By comparison, Massachusetts extends public health insurance coverage to children of families earning up to 305 percent of the federal poverty level; Vermont covers up to 317%; and New Hampshire covers up to 323%. Maine’s current ceiling of just over 200% of the poverty level is the lowest.

Carney said this low-income cap for public insurance is one of the main reasons Maine has the highest rate of uninsured children in the Northeast — 5.6 percent over 1, 5% from Massachusetts, 3.7% from New Hampshire and 2.1% from Vermont.

You have to look west to Indiana and south to North Carolina to find such high rates, Carney said.

In rural Maine, small businesses are often unable to offer their employees health plans, let alone plans that cover families. Children in Lincoln and Washington counties are twice as likely to lack health insurance as children in York and Cumberland counties, Carney said.

Sen. Ned Claxton, D-Auburn, said the bill is a top legislative priority. It will provide working-class families with access to quality care that is often more child-friendly than most private plans. For example, the state plan includes dental coverage, unlike many private plans.

“I’m a retired family doctor, so I’m all about prevention,” Claxton said. “It would give 7,800 children the kind of health care their families could not otherwise afford. It’s beautiful. You almost can’t put a price on the value it represents: to that child, to that family, to our state.

The bill passed under the hammer in both houses — no debate, no vote — but its $3.3 million price tag and expanded eligibility prompted Rep. Michael Lemelin, R- Chelsea, speaking out, arguing that it would make most Maine kids eligible for public viewing. health coverage.

“Three hundred percent above the federal poverty level is too extreme for me and too extreme for Maine,” Lemelin said. “A family of three can earn $65,000 a year and get welfare. I think that’s excessive. That’s 70% of Maine’s residents. »

When pressed on that front, Carney noted that the expansion will allow Maine to enjoy a favorable federal match – about three dollars for every dollar spent on children’s health insurance.

Lemelin was the only MP to vote against the bill when the Health and Human Services Committee took it up in March. The bill is a holdover from the last legislative session, which ended early due to the COVID-19 pandemic. His public hearing took place in February 2021.

At the hearing, groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Maine Children’s Alliance, United Way of Greater Portland and the Maine Center for Economic Policy spoke in favor. The state Department of Health and Human Services took no position, but worried about how to fund it.

Bath pediatrician Deborah Patten told the committee her first-hand observations of the tragic consequences for uninsured children in Maine. These consequences go beyond the child, she said, pushing the ailing family and the overstretched social safety net to the breaking point.

“Toddlers arrived moribund, children with psychological and behavioral problems worsened beyond repair, and autistic patients lost extremely valuable treatment time,” Patten said. “Children are losing their development potential. Families lose their resilience and economic security.

The bill will need to return to both the House and Senate for promulgation votes before heading to the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, which must decide which bills to fund from the state budget.

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Julio V. Miller