BANGOR, Maine — If the makeup and conflicting interests of a panel of invited speakers at a Bangor forum represents the complexity of reforming the nation’s health care system, the road ahead is sure to be a challenge.
Headlined and hosted by U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, the “listening session” on Wednesday at Husson University’s Richard E. Dyke Center for Family Business provided a platform for insurers, pharmacists, public health experts, businesses, hospice care providers, nurses, doctors, advocates of a single-payer plan, and many others.
Speaking to the members of the group before taking their testimony, Snowe, a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, said the committee is determined to draft legislation by June and to have it ready for debate on the Senate floor by July. The last attempt to overhaul the nation’s health care system was proposed in 1993 and dissolved in “polarization and partisanship,” she noted.
“I believe the climate in Washington is different now,” Snowe said. Recognition is widespread that the nation’s health care system is unsustainable, ineffective and inequitable, she said, and the current economic crisis is only making things worse.
“This is precisely the right time” for national reform, Snowe said.
But that doesn’t mean the revolution ahead will be easy.
Christine Ossenfort of Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Maine told Snowe that unaffordable health insurance premiums — Maine’s are among the highest in the nation — are driven by the high cost of health care itself and by the overregulation of insurance companies. Lighten regulation and insurance companies will compete more aggressively to drive down the cost of coverage, she said. Discourage overuse of pricey medical procedures that fatten hospital budgets, and providers can avoid cost-shifting to the uninsured, she added.
Eric Steele, chief medical officer for Eastern Maine Health Care systems in Brewer and the interim chief executive officer at Blue Hill Memorial Hospital, said that without maintaining “a positive bottom line” in some services, hospitals won’t be able to hire doctors and nurses, support emergency transportation and care, subsidize public health services and provide other essentials.
“In rural Maine, the health care system hangs by the thread of [small community] hospitals,” Steele said.
Cathy Herlihy of the Maine State Nurses Association didn’t mince words. A single-payer system is the “the only solution,” she said. “We do not have time to wait. Our health should not be sacrificed for limited reforms.”
Rita Bubar of the Pittsfield-based Cianbro construction firm, said funding must be found for workplace wellness programs and community health centers that encourage walking, swimming and other healthy activities.
Rebecca Ryder, CEO of Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, said public health and preventive care measures can improve the health of communities over time, but that any reform must include educating the public to have reasonable expectations of its health care system. She related a recent incident in which a patient with a sore throat became irate at waiting two hours in the emergency department while hospital staff struggled to save the lives of two people who had been in a severe car accident.
“People need to know what is a normal part of the health cycle, and sometimes that includes waking up with a sore throat,” she said.
William Beardsley, president of Husson University, told Snowe that “credentialing creep” adds billions of dollars to health care costs. A generation ago, for example, nurses with a diploma from a hospital training program were an essential component of the health care work force, he said. Now, a four-year academic degree is the norm for nurses, and many pursue master’s degrees and even doctorates. Compensating for all that education adds “tens of billions” to the American health care system, he said.
Beardsley also said the employer-based insurance system in the U.S. is crippling competition in companies from General Motors to Domtar, a Canadian paper company with a plant in Baileyville scheduled to close indefinitely in May.
Many participants stressed the importance of public health and prevention services, of providing adequate care to the elderly, of developing the use of information technology, and of funding home health and hospice services.
After the session, Snowe said it is important to hear all sides of the health care debate and to strive for agreement among competing groups. But Congress is committed to voting on reform of the nation’s health care system before the end of this year, she said, an ambitious timetable that recognizes the urgency of the problem.
“We have a totally dysfunctional system now,” she said. While like most Republicans she would prefer to see the private sector collaborate on an effective change, a government-run health care system may be the only way to get the job done, she said.
Snowe pledged to post information on the health reform debate on her Web site.
On the Web: http://snowe.senate.gov