ORONO, Maine — The health care nightmare stories Kathleen Sebelius heard from six Maine residents Thursday afternoon were similar to those she has heard from people in other states.
Health insurance rates are too high, the Mainers told the U.S. secretary of health and human services during a panel discussion at the University of Maine’s Buchanan Alumni House, and the nation needs a public alternative to private health care.
Sebelius also announced what she called the “good news,” that Maine is one of 13 states that will receive $8.5 million this year to provide affordable health insurance for uninsured part-time, seasonal and direct care workers in large businesses.
Sebelius has visited at least seven other states since spring, speaking in support of President Barack Obama’s health care proposals and listening to stories of Americans who have struggled with health care costs.
“You are the voice of the reason we need health reform across the country,” she told her fellow panelists, who included a neurologist from Bangor, a steeple restorer from Edgecomb and a teacher from Thomaston. “I hear this echoed over and over and over again when I run into people in the airport, at forums, and have the op-portunity for conversations where folks come up to me and say, ‘This is really life-or-death.’”
Sebelius also heard from a panel Thursday morning in South Portland, where she met with U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and representatives from the AARP and the Maine Women’s Lobby. She drove to Orono in the afternoon.
Her visit to Maine comes as Obama and White House aides have been talking to Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine in hopes of getting her support for comprehensive health care reform. Snowe serves on the Senate Finance Committee, which is drafting a reform plan.
“We are closer to health reform than we’ve ever been, and that’s good news,” Sebelius said, adding that the goals of health care legislation are to lower and stabilize costs, change rules for insurance companies that pick and choose who gets coverage, and focus more on preventive medicine.
Thursday’s event was announced as invitation-only, although some members of the public standing outside were allowed in to hear Sebelius.
“It was our understanding that the secretary wanted to hear from Mainers and have a discussion and not have a big huge event,” said Phil Bailey, Maine state director of Change that Works, host for the event. “It’s more informative than it is to have a public debate. It’s nice to listen instead of [hearing] people talk at us.”
The Maine Heritage Policy Center contended the panel discussion should have been open to all.
“This is the biggest topic in the country, and it’s unfortunate that the Obama administration prefers to collect their citizen input from pre-screened groups of supporters, in closed-door meetings,” Maine Heritage Policy Center CEO Tarren Bragdon said in a statement. The center opposes government-run health care.
Sebelius entered Buchanan Alumni House to applause from supporters carrying signs that had slogans such as “Health Care Now” and “Insure People, Not Profits.”
There were no protesters, and none of the loud exchanges that have punctuated health care discussions in other states.
The Maine residents who served on the panel all spoke about how their lives have been affected by high insurance rates, soaring drug costs and lack of coverage.
Panelist Joe McSwain of Edgecomb, who owns Mid Maine Restoration Inc. with his wife, Linda, said health insurance costs for his employees have risen 15 percent to 25 percent every year in the last 10 years.
“Our solution to these cost increases has been to repeatedly drop down to a less expensive and less efficacious plan,” he said. “At present we are all the way down to a catastrophic plan with astronomical deductibles and no drug coverage at all. This plan is useless to our employees. We need a public option and we need it now.”
Mary Morse-Dwelley, whose husband, Thomas Dwelley, is an optometrist in Bangor, told the audience her family owed about $100,000 after she was hospitalized in 2002 for a perforated bowel. She woke up in the intensive care unit and immediately asked her husband whether the family was up to date on its insurance.
Morse-Dwelley said after the discussion that she believes the vast majority of Americans want a public option for health care.
“I do mind sharing [personal information], but I think the time is now,” she said. “I knew with the secretary here, she would hear us. Since we had very few town halls in the state, what’s better than talking to her directly?”
The grant Sebelius announced Thursday comes from the Health and Human Services’ new State Health Access Program. The state is eligible for up to $8.5 million each year for the next four years, for a total of $42.5 million over the five-year project.
The funding will allow the Dirigo Health Agency to help part-time, seasonal and direct care workers in firms with more than 50 employees.
Earlier Thursday, Sebelius told a group of about 70 women in South Portland that reform is particularly important for them because women are more likely than men to be uninsured or underinsured. Her comments came during a panel discussion with leaders of women’s advocacy groups and other invited guests who shared their stories about health care.
The current health care debate is similar to the back-and-forth discussions over a federal health insurance program for seniors that led to the passage of Medicare in 1965, she said.
“When we made that big step 44 years ago, it was a tough battle,” Sebelius said. “Lots of people said, ‘This is a terrible program.’ Lots of people called it socialized medicine.”
Pingree, who was on the panel, said everyone knows Snowe has a key role in helping write bipartisan health care legislation.
“We hope the secretary’s presence encourages her to keep working at it,” Pingree said.
Georgette Kanach of Gray told the gathering in South Portland that she sometimes goes without food or doesn’t pay her electric bills so she can buy medication to treat her breast cancer. Even with health insurance, her co-payments eat up most of her limited fixed income, she said.
“If I lose my health insurance, I don’t know what I’d do,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.