It had to happen. The moment Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap released the wording for this fall’s referendum on expanding Medicaid in Maine, you knew the opposition party would immediately start looking for nits to pick.

Not surprisingly last week, they came up with several. But a group of six Republicans, led by former Maine Senate President Rick Bennett, focused primarily on one single word: insurance.

In its current form, Dunlap’s question asks: “Do you want Maine to provide health insurance through Medicaid for qualified adults under the age of 65 with incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty line (which is now about $16,000 for a single person and $22,000 for a family of two)?”

Responded Bennett & Co.: “We would ask that … the term ‘insurance’ be dropped and replaced with more appropriate language such as ‘government-funded health benefits,’ ‘taxpayer-funded health benefits’ or language which does not include the term ‘insurance.’ ”

Added state Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, during the State House news conference: “A welfare expansion will take money from Maine taxpayers, from their pockets and put it into the pockets of others who are not disabled and are working-aged adults.”

She’s wrong about the money-in-the-pockets part – in no way would expansion of Medicaid, known here as MaineCare, provide cash benefits for anyone.


But Sirocki, by labeling the proposal “welfare expansion,” provided a ready translation for those wondering what all the fuss is about: “Taxpayer-funded health benefits” is code for “welfare,” which is code for “those shiftless bums are trying to pick my pocket again.”

So, on that note, allow me to introduce a word that needs no decoding whatsoever:


I know this word well.

Two years ago at this time, I found myself preparing to die. As I’ve noted in this space before, I’d been diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma and, after seven months of intensive treatment, things still were not going well.

I’ll never forget how cancer turned my life – and the lives of those dearest to me – upside down during those difficult months. As the saying goes, “Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”


But at the same time, I’ll never forget how lucky I was.

I had insurance. Good insurance.

I had friends who threw me a fundraiser to cover the costs that my insurance didn’t, leaving me both humbled and, truth be told, a little bit embarrassed at this heartfelt outpouring of generosity.

What I didn’t have was a clue of what my many and varied treatments all cost, from the surgeries and blasts of radiation to the hospital stays, immunotherapy infusions and endless trips to my local pharmacy.

Was it in the hundreds of thousands of dollars? No doubt. More than that? Wouldn’t surprise me.

Beyond my deductibles, co-payments and out-of-pocket costs, you see, I didn’t have to worry about the ever-escalating price tag.


I do remember coming across an article on a medical website that said the cost of nivolumab and ipipilimumab immunotherapy treatments, both of which I received, was thousands of times higher than the price of gold. And that had someone relied on Medicare for those treatments, that person would have been on the hook for around $60,000.

But not me. I had good insurance.

And better yet, the treatment eventually worked.

I survived.

Now let’s look at Mainers whose income, as the ballot question puts it, tops out “at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty line.”

That, according to Secretary of State Dunlap’s wording, means around $16,000 per year for a single adult. The nitpickers cry foul on that, too – claiming it’s $643 more than that.


Fine. Let’s tack on the $643, which I’ll bet is less than a guy like Rick Bennett spends annually on haircuts.

Now, if you’re making $16,643 a year, life already is not very good.

Your weekly income is $320. Wherever you’re earning that money, you almost certainly don’t have health insurance, paid vacation, sick leave or any other buffer between you and flat-out catastrophe.

Then you get sick. Or hurt.

At first, you try to tough it out because the last thing you need is an emergency room bill hanging over your meager monthly budget.

Eventually, though, you’ll head for the nearest hospital because when it comes to the kind of pain that leaves you doubled up on the floor wishing you were dead, well, everyone has a threshold.


The hospital is legally bound to treat you because, for all the griping about people getting something for nothing, we at least have not (yet) devolved into a society that compels you to die on the street.

So, better late than never, you get your diagnosis and treatment, which overnight can run into thousands of dollars that you don’t have.

Maybe you’re the motivated type who will spend countless hours each week on the computer searching for charitable organizations and other assistance to help you stay financially afloat. Except for one problem – you can no longer afford internet service.

Thus, you fall behind in your payments until you just give up. And your hospital, itself hanging by a fiscal thread, chalks another one up to “charity care.”

Then you get sick again. Really sick. Only this time, remembering what happened last time, you stay put until it’s too late.

Then you die.


The local hospital, meanwhile, goes on serving others like you until it, too, can no longer stay open. Meaning other folks, now without immediate access to health care, also will die.

My guess is that none of this crossed the minds of those six Republicans – Bennett, Sirocki, Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling of New Gloucester, and Reps. Phyllis Ginzler of Bridgton, Paula Sutton of Warren and Stephanie Hawke of Boothbay Harbor – as they stood in the State House on Tuesday and used their dictionaries to once again demonize the poor.

I’ll also bet that, like me, they take comfort in knowing that should one or another medical calamity befall them, they’ll at least have the necessary insurance – that word again – to protect them from financial ruin.

So enough of the word games.

Enough pitting the haves against the have-nots.

Enough whining from people with precious little to complain about.

In the end, we’re all just trying to survive.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

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