BANGOR, Maine — Uncle Sam was on life support in Pickering Square on Saturday morning, a tangle of IV tubes draining dollar bills into his veins.
The life-size dummy in a hospital bed formed the backdrop for a rally of about 40 people who turned out in support of establishing a national public health coverage plan to compete with private insurance companies.
The issue has emerged as a divisive one in Congress, as lawmakers grapple with making comprehensive changes to the nation’s health care system. Most Democrats support the inclusion of the so-called “public option,” but Republicans say a publicly funded nonprofit agency would have an unfair business advantage and could cause the collapse of the private insurance industry.
“The conversation in Washington seems to have morphed into, ‘Oh, we must protect the insurance industry,’” said Richmond lawyer Alice Knapp, speaking at Saturday’s rally. Knapp, who formerly served as a state insurance regulator, said about 60 percent of Maine residents have publicly funded or subsidized health care coverage, including Medicaid, Medicare, veterans and military coverage, state and federal employee plans and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Approximately 157,000 Mainers do not qualify for public coverage and can’t afford private insurance, she said, yet pay taxes to support the public plans.
“It’s like paying for public schools, but your kid can’t go,” Knapp said.
Bangor physician Elizabeth Weiss said she sees uninsured patients in her office every day who make health care decisions based on what they can and can’t afford to pay. The uninsured often elect to go without prescribed medications or recommended testing, Weiss said, making it likely they’ll get sicker instead of getting better.
Meanwhile, she said, private insurance companies continue to increase their profits by refusing coverage to people who are sick, spending less on people they do cover and raising monthly premiums.
“Their first allegiance is to their stockholders and Wall Street,” Weiss said. “They are not primarily invested in patients or public health.”
Don Todd of Etna said he recently discontinued the $15,000-deductible health care policy that covered him and his wife against catastrophic illness. The policy served to protect the couple from bankruptcy in the event of a health crisis, but didn’t pay for any routine or preventive care, he said.
“I haven’t been to a doctor in I don’t know how long,” the 57-year-old said. “I’ve never had a colonoscopy, even though my mother died of colon cancer.”
Todd said the last straw in deciding to drop his Anthem policy was learning that the president of Wellpoint — the parent corporation of Anthem, Maine’s largest private health insurer — had been awarded a multimillion-dollar bonus.
It is clear, Todd said, that insurers like Anthem and Wellpoint are less interested in providing meaningful coverage than in maximizing profits.
Efforts on Friday and over the weekend to reach an Anthem spokesman for a response were unsuccessful.
Todd was among about 50 Mainers who flew last week to Washington, D.C., for a pro-public-option rally and to meet with congressional representatives.
“We really want a single-payer system,” he said, referring to the idea of a national Medicare-style plan that would cover all Americans and bypass the private insurance industry. “But we understand that, politically, it’s not going to happen. So we have got to get the public option included in the reform package.”
Todd said surveys have shown that approximately two-thirds of Americans favor the idea of a government-run universal health care system, but that lawmakers of all parties are too “fearful” of losing campaign funding from powerful health industry groups to support a radical change.
Saturday’s rally in Bangor was organized by the Maine People’s Alliance and Health Care for America Now, a nonprofit group dedicated to seeing health care reform enacted this year.
In Blue Hill on Saturday, more than 55 people participated in the Health Care Reform Now rally on the Blue Hill bridge.
“This clearly was one of the largest gatherings ever on the bridge. The march up and back Tenney Hill was filled with horns of people honking approval,” one of the organizers, Richard Kane, said Sunday.
Kane said two representatives from Organizing for America, which is President Obama’s Support the President’s Plan group, were on hand from Connecticut. They were there both to lend their support and to enlist the support of the Blue Hill marchers, Kane said.
“The response to them was that the president’s posture is not yet strong enough for our taste,” Kane said.
He said the Blue Hill group is planning a similar presence at the July Fourth parade in Brooklin and other parades in the area.
For more information, go to www.healthcareforamericanow.org.
BDN writer Sharon Mack in Machias contributed to this report.