Maine medical group affirms soda health tax

Posted Sept. 06, 2008, at 5:02 p.m.

ROCKPORT, Maine — Maine’s new law to fund health care in the state adds a cent to the cost of a glass of wine, three cents to a bottle of beer and four cents to a can of soda to help pay for the Dirigo Health Program.

“That’s not a heck of a lot,” said one physician at the Maine Medical Association’s annual business meeting Saturday morning at the Samoset Resort.

The Association gathered for three days in Rockport for its 155th annual session to discuss medical, business and political issues related to health care.

A discussion of nine resolutions approved by the Association developed into a debate on Resolution No. 2, “Vote No on Ballot Question One to Protect Health Coverage.”

A Blue Ribbon Commission on Dirigo Health in 2006 recommended a package of alternative funding for Dirigo that included taxes on beer, wine or soda.

Physicians pointed out that loss of coverage leads to poor health, costly emergency room visits, chronic disease, and higher costs for everyone.

The Association’s approval of the tax took a stand in opposition to a petition drive under way that would eliminate the new health care funding for 18,000 children and adults and put another 40,000 residents and small businesses in danger of losing their current health coverage, according to the resolution.

The beverage industry and associated interests have initiated a petition drive seeking to repeal the tax package and has been successful in putting the question on the ballot in the Nov. 4 election, according to the resolution.

During Saturday’s debate among about 100 people in the room, three spoke in favor of the repeal, including a motion to table the measure, but in the final vote, only one hand was raised for repeal.

Former State Rep. Kim Davis, R-Augusta, a candidate for the state Senate, told the doctors that while their patients respected them, they also perceived them as living in $l million homes and driving around in expensive cars.

“They look at this as being self-serving, and I think I’d be concerned,” she said.

Political candidates and legislators were invited to attend the session and the dinner Saturday night.

“I’d just like to respond to that comment that we’re all self-serving,” said Lisa Letourneau, M.D., of Scarborough. “I think physicians should speak up for public health, and this is a solution that does that. I support strongly the resolution.”

Kenneth Christian, M.D., of Ellsworth, said he strongly supported the Association’s opposition to the repeal.

“I truly believe this is basic health. The proceeds from a very small fee go directly into making a healthier Maine.”

“I can’t imagine any reason for anyone not supporting this,” he said.

Christian said the opposition represents “big money” coming from out of state.

Gordon Smith, vice president of the association, said the “big, out-of-state corporations are paying a lot of money to trick Maine people into taking health care away from friends and neighbors to protect their own profits.

He said he has heard that because Maine is the first state to consider funding health insurance from beverages, that the opposition wants to “nip the idea in the bud.”

Outgoing Association President William Strassberg, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Mount Desert Island Orthopedics in Bar Harbor, said, “We are approaching a crisis in health care today. As a global system, health care is not working.”

“We feel the issue is about access to health care,” he said. “It’s not about three cents on a beer.

“It’s about 40,000 Mainers who could lose their health coverage,” he said.

At Saturday night’s banquet, Stephanie Lash, M.D., a neurologist from Bangor, was slated to be inducted as the new Association president for 2009.

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