AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats in Maine hailed the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Thursday to uphold the Obama administration’s landmark health care law as a victory for consumers, while Republicans sharpened their attacks on the federal law by calling it an unprecedented tax increase.

State political leaders on Thursday were starting to assess the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision and the four members of Maine’s congressional delegation took sharply different tones in their reactions to the court’s ruling.

Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree cheered the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the health care law and said it means members of Congress can get to work on improving the law’s imperfections.

“I think it will move us forward, and we’ll continue to tweak it along the way,” Pingree, who would have supported a public health insurance option as part of the reform law, told the Bangor Daily News. “We had to get over this hurdle of the Supreme Court challenge to even be able to go back and talk about how we improve it.”

But Sen. Olympia Snowe, Maine’s retiring Republican senator who participated in early negotiations on the reform package, called for the law’s full repeal and said it will “impose an onerous tax” on Americans who will be required to purchase health insurance as a result of the law’s individual mandate provision.

Snowe was among many Republicans to use the court’s finding that the mandate was valid as a tax to call the health care law a tax increase. She also requested late Thursday that the Congressional Budget Office produce a new estimate showing the health care law’s long-term budgetary impact.

“The court accurately describes the individual mandate as a tax, which Americans can ill afford, especially at this time of continued economic peril,” she said in a statement.

Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud took more measured responses to the Supreme Court ruling, with Collins urging Congress to “work together to change the law substantially,” and Michaud saying he’s glad the court decision provides “the certainty Congress and the American people need” on whether the health care law is constitutional.

In Maine’s capital, reaction split largely along party lines, with Democratic lawmakers saying the Supreme Court decision directly preserves health insurance coverage for thousands of Maine residents and Republicans criticizing the ruling while also trying to draw some favorable news from it.

Gov. Paul LePage, in a statement, called the health care law “an enormous tax” and said, “Washington, D.C., now has the power to dictate how we, as Americans, live our lives.”

But Attorney General William Schneider, who signed on as a plaintiff in the case against the Affordable Care Act, noted that the court decision “protected the States’ rights and prerogatives” by ruling that the federal government can’t penalize states for not expanding Medicaid programs that fund health insurance for low-income residents.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said that was a sure sign Maine’s request for a waiver to scale back Medicaid coverage would be approved.

Democrats, however, had a different read.

“I think that this act being upheld has protected the health care for a very large number of people in Maine who would otherwise be going to the emergency room or be facing very difficult health situations,” said Rep. Sharon Treat of Hallowell, the ranking Democrat on the Legislature’s Insurance and Financial Services Committee.

But Treat lamented that Maine might have missed its chance to set up its own health insurance exchange. Under the Affordable Care Act, states need to have insurance marketplaces in place for small businesses and individuals by 2014 or they have to accept a federally designed exchange.

Republican lawmakers this spring approved a law that delayed much state action on the insurance exchange until after the Supreme Court ruling. Under the health care law, states need to be on track for having their exchanges certified by January 2013, and Maine was among three states that had mostly stopped work on their exchanges.

“It’s pretty unfortunate that the Republican majority spent the past two years fighting the Affordable Care Act and pretty much frittered away time we could have used to design our own exchange,” Treat said.

A Maine Bureau of Insurance spokesman said Thursday that staff still were reviewing the Supreme Court decision and it’s too early to know what the impact will be on Maine’s insurance exchange.

While Democrats cheered the court ruling as a victory for consumers, Rep. Jonathan McKane, a Newcastle Republican, said insurance companies are the constituency that should be cheering the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the individual mandate portion of the health care law.

“This is an incredible boon to insurance companies,” he said. “They’ve got to be happy in the boardrooms of Wellpoint and Anthem.”

Legislative Republicans in Maine last year passed a health care reform law of their own that allows Maine residents to purchase health insurance from companies licensed in other states. The law also allows insurance companies more flexibility to charge different premiums based on the health care services customers use and where they live.

McKane said any success that reform package has in lowering health care costs would be outweighed by the federal health care law.

“We’re still going to see the beneficial effects, but they are going to be far overshadowed by the negative effects of the Affordable Care Act,” said McKane, who sits on the Legislature’s Insurance and Financial Services Committee. “We’ll keep moving ahead, and we’ll see how it turns out.”

Thursday’s Supreme Court decision is sure to have an impact on the debate in Maine’s U.S. Senate race. Democrat Cynthia Dill and independents Angus King and Steve Woods, who support the health care law, praised the Supreme Court decision while saying more work needed to be done on health care reform.

Dill called the Affordable Care Act “a much needed law that provides basic health care to Americans where the free market failed to,” and King said he hoped Congress would “proceed in a spirit of cooperation rather than partisanship.”

Republican Charlie Summers said he was disappointed by the court ruling. “I, like most Americans, do not believe the federal government has the right to force anyone to purchase a product.”

Summers called for expanding tax breaks for families and individuals as a way to make health insurance more affordable.

Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...