Close Maine’s health insurance gap now, for all our sake.

Stress. We can’t avoid it. It can creep in on the cold winds of winter, scrunching our neck and shoulder muscles ever tighter as we brace against the frigid air; or it can slam into our face in the form of a pink slip, or an unexpected illness or accident.

Losing your job is at the top of the list of stress inducing life events; when you are in your fifties and have worked at one job most of your life, it is an even harder blow. That’s what happened last year to someone we’ll call William.

He worried about starting over ‘at his age’, and was unsure how he would manage financially in the short term. In trying to find his way to a new job, he took full advantage of the resources available — Department of Labor CareerCenter, job fairs, his own network of friends, and family. With his experience in construction, he started looking for some carpentry work. He had a few leads, and was hopeful that, in time, he might have a business that could support his family.

What he didn’t have was health insurance. Even with a Navigator – someone trained and knowledgeable about the intricacies of the new health care law – to help him through the Marketplace application process, he had come up emptyhanded. He and his wife, who was still working part-time, did not qualify for MaineCare and were not eligible for tax credits that are designed to make health insurance more affordable for low-income workers. They are not alone in falling into this “insurance gap”.

Because Maine is one of the states that has- so far – not expanded access to coverage for low income people using federal dollars set aside for our state, somewhere between 22,000 and 24,000 Maine adults with no dependent children remain uninsured, according to estimates from the Kaiser Family Foundation. More than half of those adults are working, and half are middle-aged and older.

If he stays healthy for the next ten years, William and his wife will be eligible for Medicare. In the meantime, even with his best efforts at following a healthy lifestyle and managing stress, he is in an age group where health issues are more likely to arise; putting off seeking medical attention for even routine health problems can lead to worsening conditions — and greater expense in the long run.

Like William, I am generally in good health and do my best to stay that way. I count myself fortunate to be part of the 48% of Maine people who have health insurance from my employer. There is evidence that stress acts to suppress the immune system; while scientists are still looking to understand exactly how this happens, I have seen the connection in my own life. I missed a few days of work last fall when I ended up with a cold on top of a tooth infection, but I wasn’t worried I’d go broke by going to see my dentist and doctor for treatment, and I soon recovered.

When stress is unrelieved and becomes distress, it can have significant negative effects on our health. And there are costs to the rest of us as well. Adding lost productivity to the cost of treatment for stress related anxiety and mental and physical illness costs American businesses $300 billion a year according to the World Health Organization.

Some stress can be beneficial, and indeed necessary to our survival; the fight or flight response to real or perceived threats to our safety or comfort is part of our biology; it serves to focus our attention and motivate us to action.

As individuals, each of us has responsibility to manage the daily, predictable stresses that come with our busy, modern lives. Few of us are perfect at this and all of us from time to time will feel the consequences, especially when confronted with unexpected events outside our control.

Collectively, we can also take action to reduce the potential disabling effects of too much stress in people’s lives. Together, we can support individual’s ability to take care of themselves. Maine, like every other state in New England, can accept the federal dollars already set aside to expand Medicaid now and provide health insurance coverage for thousands of hard working Mainers. And, we will all be healthier if we do.

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Eloise Vitelli is a former state senator. She lives in Arrowsic.



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