Health crisis squeezing Mainers; Health care advocates call for public option

Posted June 22, 2009, at 9:07 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A study released on Monday underscores what most Mainers already know: Health care and health insurance are increasingly unaffordable for an ever-growing number of people.

At a morning press conference at the Bangor Public Library, health reform advocates said the report is one more reason Maine’s congressional delegation should support the inclusion of a public insurance option in the national reform legislation currently being debated in Washington, D.C.

According to the report compiled by the national nonprofit organization Health Care for America Now, health insurance premiums for Maine families rose at a rate 5.4 times faster than the median income of Maine workers between 2000 and 2007. The state’s 7.9 percent unemployment rate and increasing number of personal bankruptcies also contribute to the growing crisis, the report says.

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Adam Goode of Bangor, a Democratic state representative and a member of the Maine People’s Alliance, said the report underscores the need for an affordable public health insurance plan to be made available to Americans who want it.

“The solution [to the health care crisis] does not lie in the hands of the private health insurance industry,” Goode said. “They’ve had years to clean up their act and fix health care.”

Members of Congress are developing comprehensive health care reform legislation, but are divided over whether a government-run public insurance program should be established to compete with private companies.

Peter Drown, a 21-year-old college student from Bangor, said he recently experienced firsthand the trauma of not having health coverage. When he was younger and covered under his parents’ insurance plan, he said, an abscess in his throat was quickly and effectively treated with minor surgery.

When the same problem recurred while he was no longer covered, doctors treated him with oral antibiotics and prescription pain medication without effect. It wasn’t until weeks later, when he became very ill and was having trouble breathing, that he was referred to a specialist who performed the surgical procedure Drown knew would take care of the problem.

“I was left with bills of more than $3,000,” he said. “I’m a college student; I’m already pretty broke.” Not only is he now saddled with a debt he cannot pay, Drown said, but it also was disturbing to be unable to receive the care he knew he needed.

“I think throwing our citizens under the bus like that is pretty cold,” he said.

Also speaking at Monday’s event was Bangor entrepreneur Cathy Anderson, owner of a downtown children’s bookstore. Anderson said she is barely able to afford coverage for herself and cannot offer it to her one part-time employee. Small businesses are increasingly unlikely to offer their workers health benefits, she said, and the problem makes it harder for would-be-entrepreneurs to consider starting new enterprises.

“Health care should not be managed by corporate America,” she said. “Health care should be a right, not a privilege.”

Anna Hicks, a policy analyst with the nonprofit Maine Equal Justice Partners, said Congress should expand existing programs such as Medicaid and the States’ Children’s Health Insurance Program so more lower-income families are eligible. Maine Equal Justice Partners also supports the idea of a public program to compete with private insurance companies, she said.

“The only way to make private insurers accountable to the public is for them to compete with a public plan,” she said.

On the Web: www.healthcareforamericanow.org

mhaskell@bangordailynews.net

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