March 5, 2013

LePage pick for Dirigo board rejected

A panel rejects Jonathan McKane's nomination 8-5, though it will still go before the full Legislature.

By Steve Mistler
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — Democrats on the Legislature's Insurance Committee on Tuesday rejected a former Republican lawmaker's appointment to the Dirigo Health insurance program's board of trustees.

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Jonathan McKane

Staff File Photo

The panel voted 8-5 against the nomination of Jonathan McKane of Newcastle, citing his past opposition to the program and derogatory comments he has made about its supporters.

All seven Democrats opposed his nomination. Sen. Dick Woodbury, a Yarmouth independent, also voted against McKane.

McKane's nomination will still go to the floor of the Legislature, but a two-thirds majority will be needed to overturn the committee's recommendation.

Dirigo Health is winding down because of a decision by the previous, Republican-led Legislature to eliminate its revenue stream. But the board could play an important role in Maine's implementation of the federal health care law.

Tuesday's vote followed a long hearing in which Democratic lawmakers and their allies blasted McKane for previously referring to Dirigo's board as a "fake committee" and the program as a "charade" and a "mistake."

McKane used those descriptions in blog posts on the conservative website As Maine Goes. Ashley Gorczyca, a social worker, likened McKane's attitude to that of an "Internet troll," rather than someone suited to be a trustee.

McKane wasn't given an opportunity during the hearing to respond to more pointed criticism. Rachel Sukeforth, a former Democratic candidate for the Legislature, said McKane's reference to female Dirigo employees and advocates as "Dirigirls" was sexist.

McKane, responding to similar questions from Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, said he was sorry if people were offended by his remarks. He denied referring to some Dirigo advocates as "commies," and said other comments were taken out of context.

McKane was unapologetic about his ideological resistance to Dirigo, which he said was poorly planned and executed.

He said his opposition could make him an asset on the board of trustees, which needs a contrarian point of view. "I'm going to be the guy who says, 'You can't do that,'" he told the committee.

Republicans on the panel said support for Dirigo wasn't a requirement for a position on the 12-member board. While some acknowledged that McKane could take his comments too far, they said his policy views align with the Republican caucus.

Democrats didn't agree. Some questioned why McKane wanted the position.

Dirigo Health was passed in 2003, championed by Gov. John Baldacci. The program was touted as a low-cost health insurance program for individuals and small businesses. But low enrollment made it a target of Republicans, who frequently labeled the program as a costly failure.

When Gov. Paul LePage was elected in 2010, he and the Republican-led Legislature began dismantling the program by eliminating its funding mechanism, an assessment on insurance claims.

The program covered more than 16,500 people in 2011, according to its most recent report.

Its funding will stop at the end of this year, but the Dirigo agency is still responsible for transitioning people it covers to new insurance plans. It also monitors the quality of health care coverage through its Maine Quality Forum.

LePage said in a written statement that the committee vote on McKane was partisan politics.

"If legislators don't want to approve McKane, then I'll choose to keep that seat vacant," Le-Page said.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

On Twitter: @stevemistler

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