Health Care Expansion Fight Isn’t Over

This session, Governor Paul LePage and Republicans in the Legislature voted against accepting federal health care funds, effectively denying care to 70,000 Maine people.

When the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, passed in 2010, it did many things right away to reign in the worst practices of insurance companies.  The ACA was intended to make sure that more people received coverage by  making it harder for insurance companies to turn people down, by making insurance shopping easier and more affordable, by covering more people in Medicaid (MaineCare) and by providing income-based subsidies to people when they buy insurance. The Supreme Court ruling in 2012 upheld the majority of the Affordable Care Act, which was a big win for health reform, but it struck down the provision that states had to accept the federal funds available to increase the number of people covered in Medicaid (MaineCare). This ruling meant that it was up to states to decide if they wanted to accept federal funding and give more people access to health insurance.

The battle over LD 1066, a bill that would allowed Maine to accept the federal funding and cover 70,000 people through MaineCare, was one of the biggest battles MPA fought this session. Passing LD 1066 would have been good for the health of Maine’s economy by allowing us to save $690 million dollars over ten years and creating thousands of jobs. But more importantly, passing LD 1066 would have been good for the health of Maine people. 

Many MPA members spent a great deal of time this legislative session talking to their friends, neighbors, and legislators about the importance of taking advantage of this opportunity to give more people access to health care. Volunteers collected more than 2,000 petition signatures and dozens of personal stories, and delivered them to legislative leadership.
MPA members who would have benefited from the new coverage gave moving testimony during the public hearing, sharing heartbreaking stories and reinforcing the need for better access to care.

MPA member Marie Pineo, as one example, is a single mother with a heart condition. Due to the recent cuts to MaineCare made by Governor LePage and Republicans in the last Legislature, she is going to lose her health coverage and doesn’t know how she is going to afford her medication.

MPA members Patty and Roger Kidder were dropped from MaineCare in last year’s cuts, and have since accrued so much medical debt that they can’t pay their bills, and they worry about how they are going to continue to buy the medication on which Roger relies. The Kidders shared their personal story at the public hearing, at press conferences with legislative leadership, and on the front page of the Portland Press Herald. The personal stories shared by Marie, Patty, Roger, and many others gave health care advocates the motivation and inspiration to fight as hard as possible to win this legislative campaign.

Unfortunately, Governor LePage and most Republican legislators put politics and rigid ideology ahead of the needs of Maine people. LePage made it clear that he intended to veto any bill related to the Affordable Care Act. The legislators who wanted to do the right thing for Maine people understood this reality and needed to be strategic and thoughtful about how to pass the bill. One thing they realized was that Maine hospitals would greatly benefit by more people having health insurance. Governor LePage’s top public priority this session was repaying the debt that is owed to hospitals for services rendered to MaineCare patients. Democrats realized that their goal of providing Maine Care to more people, and the Governor’s goal of erasing the debt to hospitals were related. By accepting the federal funding for Maine Care, more people could be covered and further debt could be avoided.

The Democrats passed the hospital repayment plan with an amendment to accept the federal funding, but the Governor vetoed it anyway.

The Legislature then passed the hospital repayment plan and LD 1066 separately. The hospital repayment plan was signed by the Governor, but the bill to give more people access to health care faced continued resistance.

Some Republicans begin to realize that the facts (not to mention basic human morality) were not on their side, so they started coming up with arguments that were not related to the bill or that just plain didn’t make sense. For instance, House Minority Leader, Ken Freddette took to the house floor to argue that he couldn’t vote for giving more people access to care because he has a “man’s brain.” He was attempting to make the argument that men think more analytically and women (and, he inferred, all Democrats) are more emotional. This sexist remark and the continued effort to deny care garnered Maine some unfortunate national attention.

After a long debate, LD 1066 passed both the House and Senate with bipartisan support. The Governor again quickly vetoed the bill, which meant it was really up to Republican legislators to decide what was more important: partisan posturing, or putting ideology aside to do what is right for Maine.

Unfortunately, not enough of them made the right choice at the right time and the veto was upheld by just 2 votes in the House.

Perhaps most galling, Representative MacDonald (R-Old Orchard Beach) and Representative Weaver (R-York) both had voted in favor of Maine people previously in the process, but when their votes really counted they joined what MPA has termed the “Cowards’ Caucus” and voted to uphold the veto. They choose to stand with Governor LePage instead of with Maine people.

This fight is not over. There will be another opportunity to pass a bill and take advantage of this federal funding when the legislature reconvenes in January 2014. Much work will have to be done to make sure it passes quickly and people begin to receive care. At that point, the clock will be ticking and every day will mean more unnecessary suffering.

MPA needs your help talking to legislators and making it clear that Maine people won’t stand by while they put spiteful politics ahead of the health of Maine people.  This episode is also a reminder of how important it will be to elect a pro-health care governor and a stronger pro-health care majority in the Legislature in 2014. That work starts right now. MPA members are spreading out across the state, knocking on doors, hosting events and making phone calls from Kittery to Fort Kent. Every voter who lives in the district of one of those representatives who voted to deny care deserves to know what happened.

If you would like to be involved, or have a story to share about your own health care experiences or those of someone you know, please contact MPA Healthcare Organizer Jennie Pirkl at jennie@mainepeoplesalliance.org. Health care is a human right. Maine can’t allow an opportunity to give 70,000 Mainers health insurance pass us by.