Sunday, March 9, 2014
Special to the Press Herald
WESTBROOK - Maine has earned a dubious distinction.
Maine is the only state in the nation where the people's representatives have approved health care expansion under the Affordable Care Act but it will not become law because of a governor's veto. In fact, Gov. Paul LePage has now vetoed it twice.
The debate in the Legislature was filled with tired, overworked talking points that the opposition used to insult the work ethic of low-income Mainers. One representative even sarcastically referred to health care for the poor as a "roach motel."
The most distressing tactic -- one embraced enthusiastically by the governor and his supporters -- pit low-income Mainers against seniors and people with disabilities. Their argument went this way: Maine should not accept the federal dollars already set aside for residents until the state Department of Health and Human Services clears its waiting lists for certain other services.
Well, that might sound good to some, but actually these issues are unrelated. Tying them together isn't even comparing apples to oranges. It's more like comparing apples to tennis balls.
No one disagrees that the DHHS needs to address its waiting lists. But we can't have an honest debate or find an honest solution unless we are first honest about the facts.
The individuals on the waiting lists have health insurance, have coverage for their medical needs and would undoubtedly benefit from the mostly nonmedical services like residential and homemaker support for which they're waiting.
Reducing waiting lists for these important services isn't just a matter of the state finding the funding. Hundreds of people have not yet been deemed eligible, and many of the services have caps imposed by the federal government.
Mainers should resoundingly reject attempts to use Maine's most vulnerable citizens as pawns to further a tea party agenda fueled by hate for Obamacare. It is not a choice, as some would have us believe, between low-income people receiving cancer treatment and seniors receiving services that allow them to live at home. We need to do both.
This administration wants you to believe that serving seniors and Mainers with disabilities is a high priority. Don't forget that its budget proposal slashed programs for these Mainers, including the state's prescription drug program for 80,000 low-income seniors; community mental health services required by court order, and dental services for more than 3,000 Mainers with severe disabilities. Fortunately, the Legislature restored these funds and overrode the governor's budget veto.
So let's be honest and clear that rejecting federal health care funds under the ACA will do nothing to speed up services for people on the waiting lists.
The rejection does mean that 25,000 low-income Mainers will lose insurance Jan. 1. Their numbers include 10,500 people with annual incomes less than $11,490 and 14,500 parents earning less than $15,856 -- carpenters, lobstermen, retail clerks, hairdressers, hotel custodians and, in a cruelly ironic twist, health care workers who provide day-to-day services for seniors and people with disabilities.
Some of the people who will lose insurance are currently battling severe and chronic illness like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Losing insurance means they will lose access to doctors, medicine and therapy.
Another 45,000 Mainers making less than $15,856 who could have had health insurance will not receive it.
In all, Maine has passed on the opportunity to provide health coverage to 70,000 of its low-income residents. For approximately 35,000 people, there are absolutely no options for affordable health care. They will be eligible for neither MaineCare nor subsidies through the new federal exchange.
The many Mainers who fought hard to embrace this opportunity are sorely disappointed. But this issue is too important to the health and security of Maine people and Maine's economy to be abandoned.
The fight for health care for our family, friends and neighbors will not stop just because we lost this session's battle in Augusta. We will continue working for affordable health care -- not just because it's good public policy but because it is also the right thing to do for the people of Maine.
Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, is a first-term legislator and a Health and Human Services Committee member. He is a health care executive with more than 20 years' experience helping state Medicaid agencies manage their programs.