All Maine Matters

August 2006



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Vol. 1, No. 8      August 2006 FREE

Un-Debating Dirigo
By John Frary

Mr. David Offer, self-described liberal and editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel is fond of writing occasional editorials celebrating debate. “Debate is good,” he assures his readers. Assuming he is sincere, the evidence suggests that he has no clear idea of what it takes to make a debate.

No debate ever took place during the seven or eight months I wrote a weekly column for the central Maine newspapers. There were letters and e-mails from angry liberals and leftists denouncing me for this and that, but not a single one ever actually addressed the points made in my columns. Not one. I was never attacked for anything I actually wrote.

Indeed, I was often chided for things I never said and did not believe.

The one issue that was gradually developing to the point that it resembled a real debate was John Baldacci’s Dirigo Health Plan. After writing three columns I managed to lure the governor’s health czarina, Trish Riley, and the governor himself (in the guise of his communications director) into the arena. Delighted at the opportunity to bloody them up directly, I wrote a fourth column, only to find it rejected on the grounds that four columns on the same subject would bore the readers!

When I found that the spiked column had been replaced by a reprint of a column published in 1991, I had to wonder about the boredom pretext. So I submitted the same column all over and told Mr. Offer I would continue to resubmit it until he published it or fired me. So he fired me, as was his right as editor.

After a long delay he found a new conservative columnist, who has so far not prompted a single letter of opposition or criticism. As for Dirigo’s problems, no hint of a debate has appeared since my departure.

For the record, I provide a slightly altered version of the column replying to Governor Baldacci’s spokesmammal:

Advice From the Governor’s Office
Lee Umphrey, Director of Communications in the Governor’s Office, sent me an e-mail informing me that the governor and his coterie are very, very disappointed. I am not the “thoughtful conservative” they had yearned for, he sobs, but a mere “partisan parrot.”

Now, I’ll concede that I have not been thinking the thoughts that the governor wishes me to think, but I must protest the parroting charge. Readers will have noticed that the three preceding columns included responses to Dirigo’s critics from the governor, Trish Riley, four Democratic legislators, and the chairmammal of Maine’s Democratic party.

The governor’s head parrot, like Trish Riley in her earlier guest column, accuses me of failing to seek information from the Augusta establishment.. This, he claims, means that my words are “without context or grounding.” More, I am “giving my readers only half the picture.” I assured him that I am not opposed in principle to dropping in on his office. The promise of a fresh doughnut, a decent cup of coffee and a list of vital facts that the DiriGods have been withholding from the public record would bring me there freshly showered with shoes shined and hair combed. While awaiting this promised list, I proposed to confine myself to analyzing publicly available information. Any of my readers dissatisfied with this method are free to seek their own inside dope. They will find Mr. Umphrey at State House Station One in Augusta.

The governor has a “bully pulpit,” the support of his legislative allies, and a whole office of communication to provide “the context and grounding.” I prefer to use my 800 words per week to provide the unlaundered half of the issue the governor’s team prefers not to discuss. Still, in the interests of fairness and balance I will try to summarize the Dirigo proponents’ arguments.

Based on the governor’s remarks and the pro-Dirigo letters and columns appearing all over the state, it amounts to this. The planning is a mess, but the program is a great success. Republicans are a pack of Reaganite wreckers who hate the uninsured and want them to die unattended. The governor welcomes criticism as long as people keep it to themselves. Insurance companies are evil.

And now back to the other half. A letter from Roger and Deborah Poulin of Skowhegan on December 12 described their own experience with Dirigo Choice and explained why they thought it was a good thing, although imperfect. This letter provided more substantive support for the program than the whole pack of professional advocates put together. It would be useful to see more such letters from citizens who have had personal experience as satisfied customers, and also from those who dropped the policy, or those who examined and rejected it. Then we would have a real debate going.

The Poulins report that they have two employees who average about 30 hours a week. One employee switched to Dirigo Choice from Medicaid and the other had been uninsured. This introduces a question. How many people now covered by the Dirigo product were previously covered?

In a May 2003 speech introducing his “bold and comprehensive approach to health system reform,”, Governor Baldacci spoke of the 180,000 Maine people lacking insurance as if he planned to extend coverage to them all. No mention was made of including “under-insured” people.

Trish Riley, Director of the Governor’s Office of Health Policy and Finance, testified before the Joint Select Committee Health Care Reform on May 15, 2003. She spoke of 136,000 citizens who lacked health insurance and went on to “propose a four-year phase-in to full coverage of all the uninsured.”

We have recently (written in December 2005) been hearing rhetoric about the Dirigo “success” in enrolling persons previously “under-insured” No mention of the category was made in 2003. Is this a classic case of bureaucratic “mission creep” destined to expand the original 136,000 into some vastly greater figure? If so, the original planning failures have been transformed from a mess into utter chaos.

Early this week I received an e-mail message from a health care provider who prefers to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. He, or she, expands on the problem very neatly and I am content to parrot her, of his, words: “Dirigo has admittedly enrolled only 2500 previously uninsured families or individuals. While I suppose it’s possible, it seems highly unlikely to me that insuring 2500 people saved $44 million in health care costs? Even if that is the case, so far the state coffers have spent over $50 million in subsidizing and running Dirigo. At the very best, we’ve spent over $50 million to save $44 million.”

So that is that is the column I wrote in December 2005. Since that time Baldacci has appointed a commission to fix the problems which David Offer and his paper have never thought worth debating. Seven months have gone by and not a single editorial comment has appeared on this chaotic scheme.
Some debate.

John Frary was born in Farmington, where he now resides. He graduated from U of M, Orono. He did graduate work in Political Science and in Ancient, Medieval, Byzantine and modern history at U of M., Rutgers and Princeton, completing his Masters degree along with all courses and examinations for the PhD. He worked in administration and as a professor of history and political science at Middlesex County College in Edison, NJ for 32 years. He is associate editor of The International Military Encyclopedia, has been assistant editor of Continuity: A Journal of History as well as editor and publisher The LU/English Newsletter. After returning to Maine he was chosen to be the conservative columnist for The Kennebec Journal and The Morning Sentinel. He was dismissed from this position in December for refusing to drop his criticism of the Dirigo Health Plan. He is currently chairman of the Franklin County Republican Committee.

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