BANGOR, Maine — Dr. Kathryn Bourgoin arrived about 20 minutes early and waited on a scorched Main Street sidewalk for the U.S. senator to arrive.
Bourgoin, a local family medicine physician, needed to explain to Olympia Snowe what she already believes in her heart: that a national single-payer system is the best solution to the country’s health care crisis. The doctor told the senator that she attended a conference recently in Canada and learned that Canadians are impressed with the United States’ Medicare system because it operates with such a low overhead.
“If that’s the case, shouldn’t we expand it?” Bourgoin asked Snowe.
The senator, as cool as anyone could be on a 90-degree day, agreed that Medicare has worked well for the nation’s seniors. “But, I’m not as confident that government can run an entire system,” Snowe said.
The two debated for a few more minutes, agreeing that health care is broken but disagreeing on the best way to fix it. Just before they parted, Bourgoin offered the senator a conciliatory gift — a chocolate-covered blueberry.
While her colleagues in Congress have been battered by constituents in town hall-style forums during the current legislative recess, Snowe has avoided public sessions for more intimate contact with Mainers. The result seems to be a more civil debate.
John Gentzel, a spokesman for Snowe, said the senator prefers this type of interaction as opposed to public forums that often feel like staged protests. “She wants to hear productive dialogue,” he explained. Her stop in Bangor was not publicized, but word got out anyway.
In addition to Bourgoin, about two dozen others waited for the senator early Wednesday afternoon before her walking tour of downtown Bangor. They jostled for position to get her ear. Many disagreed with Snowe’s position on health care, an issue that has dominated the Republican senator’s agenda of late, but they did so respectfully.
As the health care debate simmers, Snowe expressed gratitude for that respect and hopes politics stays out of the discussion.
“We need to concentrate on the issue, the substance. Partisanship shouldn’t enter the fray,” she said during a question-and-answer session with local media members. “Health care is becoming more and more out of reach for more Americans. That’s deeply troubling.”
Snowe said people are passionate about this issue and she understands that. But she also worried about people gravitating toward the extremes rather than respecting different opinions and figuring out a way to overcome them.
She and other members of the Senate Finance Committee are in the midst of drafting their own health care bill, which is likely to differ from the three proposals that already have been debated in the House.
Snowe didn’t say exactly what that bill might contain, but one thing Snowe reiterated numerous times to those in Bangor on Wednesday was the need for the private insurance marketplace to remain involved.
Food AND Medicine intern Mario Moretto, 23, of Brewer said he understands that a free market enterprise makes sense for certain things, but his opinion is that health care is too big an issue.
“It needs to be about more than profit,” he said.
Again, Snowe was sympathetic but wasn’t ready to commit to a public option for health care. She did, however, explain her fallback plan, which would allow a public option only if competitive health insurance options don’t exist even after reforms are implemented.
The senator spent about an hour Wednesday answering questions from constituents about the health care debate. After that, she answered more from media members. On Tuesday, Snowe met with Mainers in a similar fashion in Portland and then Lewiston. In between, Gentzel said, she has held countless private meetings with various stakeholders.
Snowe remains committed to a bipartisan bill even as Democrats appear ready to go it alone. She acknowledged growing public pressure to fix health care, but she said her responsibility is to do it right, not fast.
“I have resisted from day one any artificial timeframe because of the weight of [this issue],” she said. “I don’t minimize the difficulty. We’re elected to solve problems, and not just the easy ones.”