A Maine program that helps consumers figure out health insurance coverage options and appeal claims denials is imperiled by congressional gridlock.

The $150,000 grant awarded to Maine in late 2010 by the Department of Health and Human Services was meant to last only a year before it was renewed.

When Congress passed a catch-all federal spending bill late last year, however, it just kept existing programs running. The grants to Maine and elsewhere – nearly $30 million given out nationally, authorized by the health care reform law – were considered part of a new program and left out of that spending bill.

The Augusta-based nonprofit Consumers for Affordable Health Care, which runs the program for the state, hasn’t gone through all the money yet, and it is trying to pinch pennies to keep its Consumer Assistance Program going another few months.

Representatives of the nonprofit will go to Washington this month to talk to Maine lawmakers about ways to come up with more money. But Mia Poliquin Pross, the consumer group’s associate director, says that if more money isn’t found soon, it will leave adrift a program that already has helped six people recover about $35,500 in denied benefits, with three other cases pending. Hundreds of Mainers also have called a telephone help line for advice.

“We are facing a gap (in funding) as of March,” Poliquin Pross said. “We will continue to do the best we can with the resources we have,” including by applying for private grants.

More federal money may not be on the way, though, until Congress passes 2013 spending bills later this year.

Military sex assault victims

A hand-scrawled note to Rep. Chellie Pingree from a high-ranking federal official is giving hope to advocates who say soldiers victimized by sexual assault shouldn’t have to report mental health treatment when they seek government security clearance.

In 2008, the government exempted current and former soldiers who suffered from combat-related trauma from having to report counseling when they seek a security clearance.

Pingree, D-1st District, is among those who want to extend that exemption to military sexual assault-related counseling.

Last month, Pingree got a letter from James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, which is the agency in charge of the security clearance questionnaire. In his formal letter, Clapper said that his staff was working on the issue with the Department of Defense, and noted that what they did would apply governmentwide.

In a personal note below his signature, Clapper added that he’s “very familiar with this issue, and am personally supportive of what you are urging.”

That’s an encouraging sign of progress, said Greg Jacob, policy director of the nonprofit Women’s Service Action Network.

“We are really close to actually getting this done, hopefully this year,” Jacob said in a phone interview Friday.

Soldiers often need security clearances to do their jobs, and many soldiers later seek civilian jobs that require a security clearance.

Military sexual assault is an often-hidden problem, and a soldier who thinks counseling might interfere with obtaining a security clearance might not seek help, advocates say.

Jonathan Riskind — 791-6280

[email protected]

Twitter: MaineTodayDC

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