LEWISTON, Maine — Rachel Sukeforth wanted U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin to know what it’s like to be a Litchfield 20-something with — then without — health insurance.
Ned Claxton, president of Central Maine Medical Center’s medical staff, wanted to tell her what Lewiston-area doctors are doing to prevent disease and how electronic medical records, an aspect of health care reform, has helped.
Carlene Sperry, a cancer survivor and volunteer at the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing, wanted the surgeon general to know that early screenings — another key aspect of health care reform — work.
“My annual mammogram saved my life,” Sperry told her.
On Monday, days before the second anniversary of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, Benjamin visited CMMC to talk about health care reform and to hear from people about their experiences with the law’s earliest provisions.
During her speech, Benjamin highlighted the benefits Maine has so far received from the law, including millions of dollars to reduce health care fraud, fund school-based health centers and train health care workers. She also touted provisions that require insurers to cover people with preexisting conditions, allow young people to stay on their parents’ insurance plan, and require insurers to provide screenings and preventative services without a co-pay or other charge to the patient.
“The Affordable Care Act has some common sense rules which assures that you and your family’s coverage will be there when you need it,” she said.
After Benjamin’s speech, a trio of panelists — Sukeforth, Claxton and Sperry — spoke about their experiences and what they liked about the law. All three panelists were connected to CMMC or at least one of the event’s sponsors: Maine Women’s Health Campaign, Consumers for Affordable Health Care, the Dempsey Center and the National Women’s Law Center.
A question-and-answer session after the talk allowed anyone in the 50-person audience to speak. Joel Kase, immediate past president of the Maine Osteopathic Association and an emergency room doctor at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta and Waterville, was one of two people to speak. An area resident, he stopped by the event between shifts at his hospital to talk with Benjamin about his concerns over Gov. Paul LePage’s proposals to cut the Fund for a Healthy Maine and use the state’s tobacco settlement money elsewhere.
Benjamin said she has seen similar proposals in other states, and it concerns her, too. Tobacco use dropped between 1997 and 2003, she said, but among young people that decline has slowed for smoking and stalled for smokeless tobacco — just as states stopped using tobacco settlement money on smoking prevention programs and started using it for other things.
“As the federal government, we don’t tell states how to do their budgets. We try to give them the facts, give them the information, show them what the consequences are, show the various states how much it’s costing long term,” she said. “The state will do what’s good for the state, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that if you can save 2,400 kids a day from starting to smoke, it makes sense.”
CMMC was Benjamin’s only Maine stop. It’s unclear why she chose to visit Lewiston in particular. Hospital officials said they got a call Thursday seeking to set up the event. The surgeon general’s office wouldn’t say why it chose to stop here, just that Benjamin came to the city to hear “real-life stories from everyday people.”
“We have principles traveling across the nation this week to celebrate the Affordable Care Act highlights and hear from real individuals about the benefits of health care reform,” said spokeswoman Kate Migliaccio in an email.
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