Moving Backward on Health

Posted Jan. 23, 2011, at 5:56 p.m.

On the very same day, the new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously to repeal the new health care reform law and the new Maine Republican attorney general joined other states in a lawsuit attacking the law’s constitutionality. Although the two actions have no immediate effect, they have triggered legislative and judicial struggles that will last for the next two years or more. Both were a disservice to the nation, to the economy and to the people of Maine.

Both actions responded to a political strategy by the Republican congressional leadership to demonize the health reform law and wield it as a weapon to try to wreck President Barack Obama’s prospects for re-election.

The House Republicans’ strategy misrepresented the Affordable Care Act, calling its bill the “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.” Actually, it is the repeal that would kill jobs — 250,000 to 400,000 a year through the next decade, according to Harvard economist David Cutler in a study released this month.

He estimated that family incomes would fall by as much as $2,000 a year as medical costs increased beyond levels forecast under the new law. He said job transitions also would be affected, since millions of people are “locked” into their current jobs because they fear that changing would mean loss or reduction of their insurance coverage. Professor Cutler served on the Council of Economic Advisors and the National Economic Council in the Clinton administration and was senior health care adviser in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree argued in the five-hour House debate that repeal of health care reform would roll back patients’ rights and hurt Maine seniors, small businesses and working families. She said repeal in Maine would mean 590,000 people with pre-existing conditions would lose protections against premium increases and denial of coverage; 250,000 seniors would no longer have such no-charge preventive care as mammograms or diabetes tests; and 35,000 small businesses would lose their eligibility for a tax credit to help cover their employees.

The House repeal vote is an empty gesture, since the Democratic-controlled Senate will not act on it. Further legislation to limit carrying out the terms of the reform law will face probable presidential veto. And the action by Maine Attorney General William Schneider, supported by Gov. Paul LePage, in joining in challenging the law’s constitutionality is a waste of time and resources better spent on actually addressing rising health care costs.

In the absence of better alternatives to the Affordable Care Act, these actions amount to nothing better than political showboating. The House of Representatives should turn its efforts to mending any flaws in the reform act so it would work better.

Gov. LePage and Attorney General Schneider should abandon the expensive legal adventure and focus on how the new law may be used in Maine to extend insurance coverage and lower health care costs, especially for businesses.

Their actions thus far contradict the Maine state motto. They are acting as if it says “I follow” instead of “I lead.”

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