Tuesday, March 11, 2014
This week, Republicans in the Maine Legislature voted against and then Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bill to pay Maine's hospitals and to accept federal funds to expand health care coverage to 70,000 Maine people.
I still don't know why.
Republicans claimed they were afraid that the health care expansion might cost the state some money several years down the road, but the care is actually more than paid for. Even the conservative Heritage Foundation admits that the increased payments for existing MaineCare enrollees mean the state will see a net gain of $690 million over the next 10 years, on top of the money to extend coverage to all those people.
They claimed that they objected to the idea of linking the health care expansion with the hospital debt payment, but why would linking health care expansion to something else that they claim to support make them vote against it? They didn't object when LePage linked the hospital payments to the liquor contract, or to issuing the voter-approved revenue bonds, or even when he threatened to veto every other bill on every other issue if they didn't pass the hospital bill the way he wanted.
I may never understand their motives. I do, however, understand what their actions could cost Maine's working poor. I've heard from a lot of people recently who are depending on that health care expansion for themselves and their families.
There's a man in Saco who was injured at work four years ago, and it cost his family their entire savings and their retirement.
When his wife picked up another job, cleaning houses, they started making too much money to qualify for Maine-Care, and first he and his wife and then their children lost their coverage.
The medical costs are still mounting, and their savings are gone. I don't know what they're going to do if the expansion doesn't come through.
There's a single mom in New Gloucester who works 36 hours a week taking care of people with special needs.
Last year, her 25-cent-an-hour raise and LePage's cuts to health care in the previous budget meant that her family lost their coverage. She's not asking for much -- just a safety net for herself and her daughter.
There's a student in Manchester who is working his way through school who has Type 1 diabetes and is struggling to scrape together $300 a month for the drugs that keep him alive. His parents can't help; they don't have insurance, either.
There's a registered nurse in Casco who has a chronic condition and who depends on MaineCare to pay for the daily medications that are keeping her out of the hospital. She was offered a great new job, but as soon as she takes it she'll be over the income limit and lose coverage for herself and her child.
There are 70,000 stories like these of people among Maine's working poor for whom the health care expansion to 133 percent of the poverty level would make an immediate, meaningful difference. It would reduce suffering, reduce fear and save lives. It would help people to get back on their feet, protect their families and work for a better future.
The only real reasons for Republicans to have voted against this bill and for LePage to have vetoed it are political, and political maneuvering should never be allowed to outweigh the human cost that would be the result of a failure to accept these federal funds.
Thankfully, this last week may not have been the last opportunity to pass the health care expansion.
Democrats may put forward the legislation again as a separate bill. This would strip away the Republicans' objections over process, but if Republican legislators and Gov. LePage are willing to oppose it when it's tied to their hospital payment plan, it may not do much better on its own.
There may also be a chance to include the proposal in the final budget, along with a version of the hospital payment plan.
Ultimate success on this issue requires two things.
First, Democrats need to unequivocally reject Gov. Le-Page's attempts to sideline the issue with his renewed push on hospital debt and reminders of the bonds he's holding hostage. This shouldn't be too hard -- I don't see Democrats caving after coming this far.
Second, some number of Republicans, perhaps only enough to overturn a veto, need to change the way they think about this issue. They need to put politics aside and -- as Gov. LePage so often claims to do but so rarely does -- put people first.
Mike Tipping is a political junkie who blogs at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People's Alliance and the Maine People's Resource Center. He can be contacted at: