Tuesday, December 10, 2013
By REP. LINDA SANBORN
GORHAM - The Maine Legislature made a terrible mistake last year, and it could be set to make another one in a few weeks.
Last year, under incredible pressure from Gov. Paul Le-Page, his ideological allies led the fight to take health care away from 500 people as part of a larger budget compromise.
It should have never been done, and I didn't vote for it.
Now, Maine Equal Justice Partners and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine Foundation are suing the state on grounds that the Legislature's action violates the equal protection guarantee of the U.S. Constitution.
I'm a doctor, not a lawyer, and I don't know how a court will decide on the issue, but I do know that the decision -- an attempt to pacify the governor and his most ardent allies in the Legislature -- was wrong.
Now we find ourselves confronted with a terrible situation. A 65-year-old man, Hans Bruns, who until last October was receiving health insurance coverage from MaineCare, is fighting for his life with a painful and life-threatening form of cancer.
He is scraping together everything he can to get the life-saving care without insurance. He's suffering, and he's being forced to rely upon bad debt and charity care at the hospital in Presque Isle where he is receiving chemo and radiation treatment.
The cost of his care is being shifted onto everyone in Maine who has health insurance. When someone lacks health insurance, the bills are covered through higher costs for those with it.
It's an inefficient hidden tax that guarantees everyone pays a higher price: the patient, who doesn't receive all the care he needs; the hospital, which must shift costs; and the health insurance consumer, whose premiums go up.
But beyond the financial costs of denying coverage to Bruns and an estimated 500 others like him, we are all paying a moral cost for turning our backs on our neighbors. In June 2011, the Legislature eliminated health insurance coverage for people from other countries who are lawfully residing in Maine and imposed a five-year waiting period before they could qualify for coverage.
The decision to separate people into categories of "us" and "them" is estimated to save less than one percent of the state's two-year budget. The state's cost of coverage for this group of Mainers pales in comparison to the cost to these individuals and their families as their health rapidly deteriorates without medically necessary care.
On May 15, the Legislature is scheduled to return to Augusta to complete work on the budget for the Department of Health and Humans Services.
Currently, there are a number of proposals being considered that would extend the tragedy of the cuts we imposed last year to immigrants like Bruns onto thousands of other Maine families. We will be dealing with the governor's insistence that we make more drastic and dangerous cuts to MaineCare.
We know that Maine's economy has not recovered from the Great Recession and that we have thousands of families -- and children, especially -- who must rely on public programs to stay in their homes and buy food as a bridge as they try to regain a stable life.
We know that many of our neighbors depend on Maine-Care for health insurance so that they can get the care they need when they get ill.
When the Legislature returns, it is my hope that we can fix our error and restore health insurance coverage to Bruns and others like him and that we can find a balanced and reasonable approach to the budget that does not include additional cuts to MaineCare.
The notion of tough love may sound good as political rhetoric, but it translates into pain, hunger, illness and desperation for the families on the receiving end.
Soon, the Maine Legislature will have a chance to find a better approach, one that recognizes that MaineCare and other programs can be improved and made more efficient and recognizes also the human consequences of our actions.
Last year, the governor and his allies thought that we could turn away from people like Bruns and hope for the best. It's absolutely clear that we can't.
It's time for a new approach and to fix the problems they created.
Rep. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham, represents House District 130, which includes parts of Buxton and Gorham.