The two Republican candidates battling for a chance to become the next congressman from Maine’s 2nd Congressional District shared a heated exchange Wednesday in a debate moderated by Maine Public Broadcasting Network’s Jennifer Rooks.
The conflict hinges on allegations that one candidate, former senate President Kevin Raye, has previously supported elements of President Obama’s health care reform and a separate proposal to study establishing single-payor health care in Maine.
Former state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, Raye’s opponent, has accused Raye of voting for a plan to implement the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, in widely panned television and radio ads – a charge Raye strongly denies.
But on Wednesday, during the debate, Poliquin introduced a new charge: That Raye has voted in support of studying establishing a single-payor, government-run health care system in Maine – a claim Raye denounced immediately as “absolutely” not true.
The truth, as with most claims made in the heat of campaign season, is complicated.
IMPLEMENTING STATE-RUN EXCHANGE
Raye did volunteer to serve on the 124th Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Health Care Reform Opportunities and Implementation – a bipartisan committee chaired by Rep. Sharon Treat (D-Hallowell) and then-Sen. Joseph Brannigan (D-Portland). The committee included five state senators and 12 representatives, and was controlled by a Democratic majority.
According to legislative documents, the committee was formed to explore whether Maine should establish its own health care insurance exchange, as provided for under Obamacare, or allow the federal government to establish an exchange, as eventually happened vis-a-vis healthcare.gov. The committee also explored various aspects of a potential state-run exchange including how it should be administered, by whom, and whether there should be separate exchanges for small-businesses and individuals.
The committee eventually delivered a unanimous recommendation to the 125th Legislature that Maine establish its own exchange.
The report lists the following as a “consensus recommendation”: “Maine should operate its own exchange initially, but should explore opportunities for a regional exchange or coordination of back office functions for an exchange with other New England states.”
The recommendation, along with other suggestions from the committee, received unanimous support from committee members. Raye did not vote “yes” on implementing the state-run exchange provision of Obamacare because he never had an opportunity — no vote was ever taken. However, he did not object to the final recommendation offered by the committee, which is considered a “yes” vote under parliamentary procedure.
Raye was not the only GOP member who acquiesced to the committee’s recommendation to establish a state-run exchange. Other Republicans, including Leslie Fossel of Alna and Wesley Richardson of Warren, were among those in support of the committee’s recommendation. So was former state Senator Earle McCormick of West Gardiner, who recently endorsed Raye.
The end result of the committee’s work was that Treat and other Democrats, with a bipartisan recommendation in hand, were able to criticize Republican Gov. Paul LePage for going against bipartisan consensus in not establishing a state-run exchange.
“Democrats and Republicans worked together last year to outline the best approach to setting up a state-based exchange, which is the mechanism for individuals and small businesses to easily purchase less expensive and subsidized health insurance,” Treat said in an August 16, 2011 press release. She added that the recommendations were “bipartisan” and “unanimous.”
Although Raye may not have “voted” to implement an Obamacare exchange, Democrats touted his and other Republicans’ non-objection as an indication of support for the final recommendation: to establish a state-run health insurance exchange pursuant to Obamacare.
Such state-run exchanges across the country have come under fire lately due to reports of wasted money, technical glitches, bureaucratic failures, and general mismanagement, leading many onlookers to reflect that Maine dodged a bullet by letting the federal government operate its exchange, which has surpassed initial enrollment goals set by the federal government.
Additionally, recent polls have shown that, despite President Obama’s relatively high approval rating in Maine, a majority of Mainers do not approve of the controversial federal health care law.
In tight Republican primaries, being seen as supportive of Obamacare could turn off GOP voters, especially among the more conservative voters of northern Maine, which may help explain why Poliquin is shining a light on Raye’s role on the committee.
Raye has previously told a state newspaper, in response to Poliquin’s ads, that his position on the Obamacare joint committee helped prevent it from fully endorsing the law, which he believes should be repealed. Raye’s campaign confirmed this position Wednesday as well as the candidate’s belief that the law should be repealed.
Whether Raye supported a bill to study the implementation of single-payor, government-run health insurance in Maine is matter of legislative record rather than interpretation.
On May 28, 2009 – long before Obamacare became law – Raye voted against a majority of Republicans in the Senate in support of L.D. 1002. Again, on June 12, 2009, Raye voted for final passage of L.D. 1002.
Eight Republicans, including former Senators Peter Mills of Somerset and Jon Courtney of York, voted against the study, while 5 senators voted in favor.
The bill was signed into law on June 17, 2009 by Democratic Gov. John E. Baldacci. According to Maine statute, the law calls on the state to hire a $60,000 independent consultant to “update the estimated costs and impact of a single-payor health care system.”
Raye campaign manager Michael Leavitt said Raye does not support -and never has supported – establishing single-payor health care in Maine. He said Poliquin is using Raye’s support of the feasibility study to inaccurately portray him as supportive of government-run health care.
“It’s false, not accurate, and a desperate attempt on Bruce’s part to try to score political points,” said Leavitt. “Kevin has been explicitly against a single-payor health care system and has voted twice in the state legislature as such.”
In the same year Raye voted for L.D. 1002, 2009, he also voted against a resolution urging the President to establish a national single-payor system. (Legislation to enact a single-payor system never went to a vote in either the House or the Senate that year.)
Again in 2011, Raye sided with his Republican colleagues in opposing L.D. 1397, a bill put forward to establish single-payor in Maine.
Poliquin’s campaign doesn’t buy Raye’s explanation of either his role on the Obamacare joint committee or his vote in favor of L.D. 1002 — both are indications, they say, of Raye’s inconsistent views on health insurance reform.
“Facts are stubborn realities,” said Matt Hutson, Poliquin’s campaign manager. “Raye clearly didn’t want to discuss his vote for a liberal sponsored bill to study the introduction of a single payer, government run health care system in Maine — going farther than Obamacare,” he said.
Poliquin and Raye are vying for a chance to run in the general election for Maine’s 2nd district congressional seat recently vacated by U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, a Democrat who is challenging LePage in the gubernatorial election.
Two Democratic state Senators, Troy Jackson of Allagash and Emily Cain of Orono, are competing for the Democratic nomination.
Maine primary elections will take place on June 10.
This story will be updated.