Health care solution overdue

Posted Feb. 10, 2010, at 7:06 p.m.

For more than a year, Maine Change That Works has been advocating for health care reform. We live and work in every county in Maine and have talked in person to thousands of Mainers. We’ve learned quite a bit. We’ve learned Mainers are fed up, discouraged and angry that their politicians are not responding to a health care crisis they live out every day.

We’ve learned the politicians agree with Mainers; the current system is broken but they are caught in the worst kind of partisan politics.

The current system rewards greed and does not contain costs. So, business owners are telling their employees to either drop coverage or drop family members. We’ve talked with nurses who can’t afford even the “low-cost” plan for their families, fishermen and farmers living one accident from disaster and those who thought they had insurance only to be denied treatment by their insurance companies. We even met a doctor whose sister was in a coma and who, on the very day she barely regained consciousness, was told by the insurance company to “go home.” We’ve met hundreds of resilient Mainers, struggling to make ends meet, with unforeseen medical issues whose neighbors and family come to help them with benefit suppers and cans collecting change at convenience stores, literally begging for change.

Sen. Olympia Snowe has called the current system “dysfunctional” and “unsustainable.” She also said insurance premiums in Maine have risen 271 percent in the past 10 years. Rep. Chellie Pingree was told by some Tea Party “Patriots” to “Kill the bill or her career would end.” She responded by saying, “I came to fight for health care, not a career.”

Maine’s Chamber of Commerce’s annual survey showed health insurance the number one concern, yet the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, working with the health insurance industry, has spent millions on TV ads to tell us we need to stop and do reform the “right way” without saying what that is. Certainly it doesn’t involve competition for the insurance companies.

The right wing, led by Rush Limbaugh, says the system is fine the way it is. Limbaugh, who recently needed emergency services for chest pains, said the system worked fine for him and he doesn’t see the problem. Of course he doesn’t: He is a multimillionaire who is able to pay cash for his health care.

Fanning the flames of distrust is easy but defies logic. People who have Medicare are telling the government to stay out of Medicare.

It isn’t Limbaugh and other multimillionaires we should be worried about, but Maine’s farmers and fishermen, loggers and self-employed, the people who work hard each day and who are one slip away from catastrophe. After all, history is not on our side. Presidents back to Richard Nixon and Teddy Roosevelt have tried to reform the for-profit Wall Street system.

Now, Anthem is suing the taxpayers of Maine because it was not granted a guaranteed profit in last year’s rate hike request (they asked for 18.5 percent and were granted 10.9 percent). This year they are asking for an additional 23 percent. They are covering fewer people, raising rates, taking massive bonuses and our federal representatives are choosing not to act.

What is needed now is political courage to stand up to one’s political party and the insurance industry lobby and to do what is right instead of what is expedient. The current health insurance reform bills are not perfect, but we can expand coverage to 94 percent of all citizens by 2019, reduce the deficit for decades to come and create pilot programs to move the medical system toward better care at lower costs.

We are overdue for common-sense solutions that will bring peace of mind to families and lift the economic albatross hanging around the necks of Maine’s small businesses and working families. Saying let’s start over is a nonstarter. It’s an election year and once the campaigns kick in, no one will stand up and vote for real change. It is time for Mainers to take responsibility, break the gridlock and solve a key problem facing our state and the nation.

Phil Bailey is the state director of Maine Change That Works. He can be reached at Phil.Bailey@mainechangethatworks.net.

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