Republican radio address

For the weekend of May 16-17, 2009

Greetings, this is Kerri Prescott, state representative from Topsham. It’s my honor to deliver the Republican response this week.

The Legislature is entering its final month of work, when the action intensifies and budget negotiations set the tempo. Bills move through the House like a procession of streetcars. But every so often a bill stops the traffic as a big issue comes to the forefront. That was the case last Wednesday, when the House debated and ultimately killed a bill to let state residents purchase health insurance from out-of-state companies. The vote broke mostly along party lines, but I want to give credit to the 10 Democrats who voted for this Republican attempt to save money for the people of our state.

This was a severe blow against freedom of choice, common sense and financial security for Maine families. As you know, the cost of health insurance in Maine has spiraled out of control. Our rates are the second highest in the country. One company holds a virtual monopoly on the market for individual insurance.

A vote in the House to keep Mainers locked into this situation was truly appalling. Not only did it close off an escape hatch from Maine’s insurance disaster, it also made sure that consumers will continue paying some of the most outrageous rates in the country. In an economy like this, it is almost inconceivable that legislators would deny working families the chance to save thousands of dollars a year.

Maine used to have a dozen or more companies offering health policies and competing for business. Nearly all of those firms have been driven out of the state by so-called reforms. An estimated 140,000 Maine residents have no insurance at all, usually because they simply can’t afford the exorbitant expense. Another 270,000 are on Medicaid, one fifth of the state. If our rates were closer to the national norms, many of those folks could afford commercial insurance.

The numbers are staggering. Family policies here can easily run to $15,000 or $20,000, even with high deductibles. Maine families and individuals pay a higher portion of their income for health insurance than anyone else in the nation. My constituents in Topsham ask me constantly why we can’t have other options. They want to know why we can buy car insurance or life insurance from companies out of state, but not health insurance. They have researched the situation on the Internet, and they know that they are getting a raw deal. They are frustrated that Maine insists on keeping them shackled to a failing system.

A bill sponsored by Republican Representative Jon McKane, of Newcastle, sought to break those shackles. His bill would have allowed Maine residents to shop around for insurance anywhere in New England and find the best prices and the best plans for themselves and their families. Jon is an electrician who has worked to solve our insurance fiasco since he was first elected in 2004. Every reform bill offered by Republicans over the past few sessions would have moved Maine closer to the American mainstream. We have proposed commonsense solutions to give Mainers the same kind of system that the vast majority of Americans enjoy in their own states.

But unfortunately for the people of Maine, every single bill has been killed by the majority party, which has ruled the Maine House for the past 35 straight years. Under their watch, our insurance system has virtually collapsed. Yet they stubbornly refuse to offer serious ideas to fix it, and they fiercely resist any Republican proposal to bring relief. It is no wonder that companies of all kinds find it so difficult to operate in Maine and why our job creation rate is so weak. All these things are connected.

Representative McKane knows that without meaningful reform, the best deal for Maine consumers would be out-of-state insurance. Families could save thousands of dollars a year. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut all have robust insurance markets. New Hampshire has 11 companies selling individual policies. Massachusetts has 21. Maine has only two. Just imagine if we suddenly had the choice of dozens of companies and plans to choose from. By joining together with our regional neighbors, Maine would be part of a huge insurance pool and would have the advantages of much greater competition. We would have the same consumer protections that these states offer, plus any other protections we wished to impose.

There is no doubt that the people of Maine wanted this bill to succeed. They didn’t see any downside, because there really isn’t one. Under the McKane plan, the decision was voluntary. If you wanted to stay with your Maine insurance, that was fine. Nothing was being taken away. But people who preferred other options would have had them. In legislative surveys, at least 95 percent of folks said they wanted the freedom of choice to buy insurance someplace else. No one likes being told by politicians that they have to stick with a loser.

The majority party had no rational arguments against the McKane bill. They just didn’t like it – maybe because they feared it would work. Maybe they feared it would break up the logjam in Maine’s insurance market and bring in more competition. Without an insurance crisis, their hopes for a universal, single-payer system would begin to flicker.

For Republicans, it was a political loss. But the real losers were Maine families. They could have had an escape route from our insurance debacle, but now there’s no way out unless the Senate gives the bill another chance.

This is Kerri Prescott. Thank you for listening.