NORTH YARMOUTH — Providing health insurance coverage for as many people as possible will save lives – not only of those who are insured, but also of those around the uninsured.

Gov. LePage and his Department of Health and Human Services want to yank MaineCare for 19- and 20-year-olds because they are “able-bodied.” This makes absolutely no sense. Let me try to explain this in a way that the governor and his administration might understand.

Late adolescents and young adults are at high risk for significant mental illness. This is the leading time for the onset of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder – illnesses that come during a period when young people are supposed to step into the adult world, continue their educations away from home or get jobs.

I proposed a bill last session to help these individuals at risk for severe mental illness to “bridge” into adulthood; the measure, L.D. 1367, was approved by the Legislature, only to be vetoed by the governor.

The bill would have identified and reached out to people like Dylan Collins, the 18-year-old who has been accused of starting a fire that destroyed a building in Biddeford and killed two people.

Collins’ mother has said that she tried to secure help for him while he was in crisis, without success. The Portland Press Herald has recounted her repeated attempts to get care for her son, but the system failed Dylan Collins, his family, his community and the two young men who died in the fire.

Our broken mental health system too often is reactive and responds only when bad things happen. My bill, based on a federal initiative called Healthy Transitions, would have created teams to reach out to at-risk individuals such as Dylan Collins. He and individuals like him would have had access to mental health support services as well as assistance in navigating into adulthood.

Gov. LePage vetoed my bill, stating that it was “a waste of time.” The DHHS did eventually receive some federal grant money to work on adolescent mental health. Maine Behavioral Health as well as other mental health organizations are poised to get to work, but it remains to be seen if the grant money will actually be awarded and programs implemented.

And even with the grant money, how will care be paid for if many have no health insurance? The governor wants to cut MaineCare for these vulnerable young people. Does this make any sense?

The description “penny-wise and pound-foolish” applies here. Studies show that intervention and treatment early in a psychiatric disease make a huge difference. Dr. Doug Robbins, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, and his colleagues at Maine Behavioral Health have seen this time and again and have developed successful programs for teens and young adults.

Robbins and I worked together to get my bill passed and to get the administration to listen. We think there is a chance that the governor and the DHHS will listen and provide necessary care for these vulnerable teens and young adults. But it makes no sense to say that care is needed, then to yank MaineCare funding to pay for their care.

It is time to be proactive in every aspect of health care, but particularly in mental health care. Do we wait for another severely troubled teen or young adult to act out violently and kill others or themselves? Do we wait for them to go largely untreated for their mental health problems?

Are they able-bodied? Can they get a job with health insurance benefits? It is time to wake up and smell the coffee. Health insurance and comprehensive health care save us all from catastrophic illness or injury.

Gov. LePage must listen and learn before we lose more lives. Maine should accept the federal dollars that many other states have accepted (even New Jersey, whose Republican governor, Chris Christie, came to Maine several times in support of Gov. LePage’s re-election) and cover 70,000 Mainers with health insurance.

I’m asking the governor not to pull lifesaving health insurance from vulnerable adolescents and young adults who are just starting their life journeys. It’s time for him to put his ideology aside and do the right thing for Maine.

— Special to the Press Herald