Michaud, Pingree back health measure

Posted Nov. 09, 2009, at 12:27 a.m.

Maine’s Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, voted in favor of the landmark health care reform bill that squeaked by Saturday night 220-215.

Both have expressed their reservations about the measure, for different reasons. They say they will continue to monitor the bill as it is merged with a Senate version, which has yet to be voted on, and moves on to a final vote by the full Congress. That vote is not expected to come until after the end of the year.

Michaud, who could not be reached for comment Sunday, has been under recent pressure from different quarters as he remained noncommittal toward the House bill.

As recently as noontime Saturday, Michaud’s Bangor office was the site of a small but robust protest against the House measure.

The New York Times reported on its Web site Sunday that Democratic officials said a conversation between Michaud and President Barack Obama was crucial in winning “one final vote.”

It wasn’t until Saturday morning that he issued a statement indicating his support.

“After hundreds of meetings, hours of careful consideration and lots of soul-searching, I have decided to lend my support to the historic opportunity that confronts us today,” he said.

Michaud said in the statement that he remained concerned about the bill’s effect on spending in Medicaid and Medicare.

He also indicated concern that the bill doesn’t do enough to ensure access to doctors and other health care providers in rural areas. He said he had spoken directly with Obama about his reservations and hopes to see some modifications in the final bill.

He said that his cautious support for the House bill does not ensure his vote for the final conference legislation.

Labor leaders have urged Michaud to support the House bill, which they said would improve health care coverage for pulp and paper millworkers and other middle-income earners. The congressman has come under fire from more liberal groups who say the House bill doesn’t go far enough to rein in insurance company profits and expand coverage through a strong public insurance program.

At the other end of the political spectrum, he has taken hits from conservatives who decry the House measure as a government takeover of the American health care system.

“To those in Maine who have legitimate concerns over the direction of reform — please know that I have heard them and that I will continue to fight to strengthen this legislation,” Michaud said in his statement Saturday. “But we cannot allow unfounded fear of death panels and government takeovers of health care derail this important opportunity. These claims were always untrue, and they are untrue today.”

On Sunday, Pingree, a resident of North Haven, spoke with the Bangor Daily News about her support for the health care reform legislation.

Pingree, whose “yes” vote had been expected for months, said the bill makes important progress in extending health care coverage to all Americans.

By imposing stricter federal regulation of private insurance companies, offering a competing government-run coverage program, and providing subsidies and tax credits to help consumers and employers afford insurance, she said, the House bill promises to decrease the ranks of the uninsured and reduce the number of Americans covered by “catastrophic” health plans with very high deductibles.

The bill also makes changes in the Medicare program for seniors, Pingree said, including reducing the cost of some drugs, getting rid of an existing gap in coverage for prescription drugs, and eliminating some out-of-pocket charges for preventive care.

Additionally, a focus on paying for Americans to get routine preventive care will help improve the overall health of the nation and hold down spending in the long run, she said.

Pingree acknowledged that many Mainers favor a more comprehensive public plan than the one included in the House measure. But lacking broad congressional support for any public option at all, she said, the bill approved Saturday night lays the groundwork for stronger versions.

“We have at least endorsed the concept,” she said.

Pingree said she was disappointed at the inclusion in the bill of a hot-button amendment from Bart Stupak, D-Mich., to tighten existing restrictions on the use of federal dollars for abortions — a provision she said is driven by those trying to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion rights case.

She also weighed in against a provision that allows health insurance companies licensed in one state to do business in another. Although some conservative lawmakers argue that the so-called “interstate compact” will promote market competition, especially in states such as Maine where one or two insurance companies have a virtual monopoly over individual and small-group plans, Pingree said she fears the erosion of state-level regulation of the industry.

Pingree said she will almost certainly vote in support of the final conference bill.

“I don’t believe we’ll come up with a horrible bill,” she said. “I can’t imagine blocking a bill because everything isn’t perfect.”

mhaskell@bangordailynews.net

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