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Legislative Democrats Propose Measures Aimed At Protecting Patients From High Health Care Costs

Democratic lawmakers in Maine unveiled a suite of health care proposals in Augusta on Tuesday that aim to protect patients from expensive medical bills. They’re calling it the Patients First Health Care Package.

Last year, Colleen Callahan of Brunswick says she was at a crossroads. She was weighing whether she should seek medical care that was beyond her personal budget. She did, and made an appointment with a specialist she hadn’t seen in a few years. Afterward, Callahan says, she got an unfortunate surprise.

“In addition to the fee I received for my treatment, I was charged a $427 new patient fee,” she says.

After many phone calls, Callahan says she found out it was legal for her physician to charge her a new patient fee because it had been three or four years since her last appointment. It’s the kind of surprise medical bill that some Democratic lawmakers say they want to prevent, and they announced their plan in the State House Tuesday.

“Our Patients First Health Care Package gives Mainers an advocate on their side when they go up against big insurance companies,” says Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, who is sponsoring a bill that would create a Commission on Affordable Health Care charged with recommending ways to reign in health care costs.

It’s modeled after similar efforts in other states, including Massachusetts, where annual growth in health care spending has been below the national average for nearly a decade.

Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon is sponsoring a proposal that would shield patients from expensive out-of-network bills if they had no real opportunity to choose a cheaper option.

“In an emergency, getting treatment as soon as possible is the No. 1 priority. Not verifying which providers are in network,” she says.

Gideon has also introduced legislation that would cap the out-of-pocket cost for insulin, which has seen steep price increases in recent years, at $100 in the individual and small group markets.

A fourth bill, sponsored by state Sen. Ned Claxton, is designed to protect patients from abusive billing practices and unnecessary fees.

Legislative action is needed to help Mainers, says Ann Woloson of Consumers for Affordable Health Care. Last year, she says, the group’s consumer assistance program received calls from more than 7,000 Mainers who struggle with the high cost of health care.