The bill had also changed yet again, with fundamental differences from the version Richardson had given Treat 48 hours earlier, Treat says. At this point it included provisions to allow people to buy insurance across state lines (where Maine coverage mandates don't apply), a reinsurance pool (allowing insurers to effectively rid themselves of really sick people, whose coverage would be paid for by a tax on everyone else), a repeal of a rule preventing insurance companies from forcing people to travel great distances to receive medical care, and a reduction in the powers of the Bureau of Insurance, which regulates the industry.
"To have something 29 pages long come in as an amendment for a three-page bill and then not even to get answers to our questions back — I've never seen anything like that — ever," says Treat, who has served in Augusta for 19 years.
"It was remarkable to see the Democrats make suggestions on how to improve the bill and to just be told 'no — we're not going to take any,'" says Alfond. "Democrats tried everything we could possibly do to slow the process down or get more information, or to give the public an opportunity to weigh in, but none of these were taken up by the chair."
Then, as things became heated, the chair — Senator Rodney Whittemore (R-Skowhegan) — announced the committee would take a short break for private partisan caucus meetings. The Republicans shuffled into the chair's office at the back of the room, called Tarren Bragdon in to join them, and shut the door.
When they emerged a half hour later, witnesses say Whittemore kept assuring Democrats that everything would be fine. "He's a man of great feeling and he just kept saying, it's okay, it's okay, this is the way they do it in Idaho'," Senator Joseph Brannigan (D-Portland) recalls. (Idaho's reinsurance pool — which is not universally regarded as a success — inspired the high-risk reinsurance scheme in the bill.) "And of course, we didn't have an opportunity to get a handle on what Idaho was really doing and whether or not it was good." Republicans declined to refer the bill to the Bureau of Insurance and, an hour or so later, passed the bill out of committee on a party-line vote.
Republicans say there was nothing left to discuss. "All of the different components had had public hearings in the past," says Richardson. "With the exception of the [freshman] Republicans who are new to the committee, all of those folks have heard these bills before. There was nothing new about it."
Dutson says the debate came down to fundamental philosophical difference on how to get health insurance costs down, and that further discussion was not going to bridge the divide. "I can understand how Representative Treat and Senator Brannigan would have liked to spend a year doing study after study," he said. "We've been waiting 30 years to make these changes."
Democrats say further study was indeed required, especially given the mandates contained in the federal Affordable Care Act, which take effect in 2014. "I think they wanted a radical change," says Treat, "and they felt they couldn't achieve that through a process that works toward consensus."