Wednesday, March 12, 2014
By Justin Alfond and Mark Eves
AUGUSTA - In the coming days, the state of Maine has an opportunity to pay back the debt owed to our hospitals and contain the rising costs of health care for our people and hospitals.
The Legislature has put forth a bill to pay back Maine's hospitals and to accept federal health care dollars so that nearly 70,000 Maine people will have health care coverage. And, now it is up to the governor as to what happens next.
Signing this bill is morally and fiscally the right thing to do -- and we urge the governor to do so. Here's why:
PAYING DEBT TO HOSPITALS
First, the governor gets to keep his promise: Maine's hospitals will receive their final payment.
We've heard a lot from the governor these past few months about the need to pay Maine's hospital debt. His top priority is one we also share.
Now the Legislature has put forward a comprehensive plan that not only pays the debt, but also ensures we don't get back here in the future.
See, Maine's hospital debt is a symptom of our high health care costs. By accepting federal health care dollars to cover more Maine families, we reduce the charity care costs and bad debt that are cost drivers for our hospitals. To do one without the other would leave the job half done.
When people without insurance get sick, they end up in the emergency room, where care is often the most costly. The cost of that care is often picked up by hospitals and then passed on to anyone with private insurance.
According to the Maine Hospital Association, bad debt and charity care together added up to $450 million last year, up $32 million from the year before.
The Legislature's plan pays the debt and helps fix the underlying problem that contributes to high health care costs in the first place.
IMPROVING MAINERS' HEALTH
Second, it's health care for tens of thousands of Mainers -- fully paid for by the federal government.
Take Marie from Bangor. She has a part-time job that doesn't provide health insurance.
She also has a serious heart condition that doesn't allow her to work full time. Without health insurance for her or her family, she is forced to choose between putting gas in her car or paying her medical and utility bills.
Marie is one of many who shared her story with lawmakers in Augusta. Unfortunately, she is not alone.
This is a reality for tens of thousands of Mainers who are unable to afford health insurance. A working father who can't afford to pay for his heart medicine; an older Mainer struggling to pay for prescriptions; a veteran who can't afford his insulin.
The federal government has agreed to cover 100 percent of the cost for covering tens of thousands of Mainers for the next three years, gradually lowering its payment to no less than 90 percent of the cost by 2020. There is no cost to the state -- in fact, we will save money.
This is a deal we should not pass up. It's a deal that Republican governors around the country have seized. And Maine will lose out if we don't take it.
Maine is projected to save $690 million in the next 10 years if it accepts the federal dollars, according to the nonpartisan Kaiser Foundation.
JUMP-STARTING THE ECONOMY
Third, our comprehensive plan will boost the economy.
Our plan will save and create jobs by repaying the hospitals and injecting an additional $250 million into the state's economy. It will create more than 3,100 jobs, approximately half in the health care field, according to the Maine Center for Economic Policy. It will prevent layoffs by providing more patients to hospitals that are seeing a drop off in patients.
This comprehensive plan is a win-win for Maine people and Maine's hospitals. It addresses the costs of health care for our hospitals and our people.
Gov. LePage and Republicans have a choice to make: Will they join us in supporting a plan that pays the hospitals and accepts federal health care dollars to cover more Mainers? Or will they retreat into an ideological corner, putting politics ahead of the people's health and their own top priority?
We've upheld our end of the bargain and done what the governor has asked. Now the ball is in his court. Now is the time to act.
Justin Alfond, D-Portland, is president of the Maine Senate, and Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, is speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.