In early April, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed yet another proposal to accept federal funds to expand health coverage through MaineCare. Despite bipartisan support for the proposal, too many legislators sided with the governor to overcome his veto.
But the issue of expanding MaineCare isn’t going away. It’s just changing arenas, from one dominated by men (the Legislature, where 70 percent of seats are held by men) to one where the views of women often make all the difference: elections.
Make no mistake, there’s something at stake for all Mainers in the debate over accepting the funding to expand MaineCare. It’s health coverage for 70,000 Mainers. It’s thousands of jobs in our state’s health care sector, with ripple effects in other sectors. And it’s the positive economic impact of those new federal dollars circulating in our local economies and boosting our small businesses.
But the expansion of MaineCare also is an issue of particular importance to women: It’s a women’s health issue, and it’s also a women voters’ issue.
The women’s health case for expanding MaineCare is overwhelming. In 2010, 55 percent of the 19 million uninsured women across the country had incomes low enough to qualify for health coverage under the expansion of Medicaid made possible by the Affordable Care Act. Expanding coverage in all 50 states could cut the uninsured rate among women in half.
We have a critical opportunity to tackle gender-based health disparities. Almost 40 percent of women live with a chronic health condition that requires attention (compared with 30 percent of men). Women live with higher rates of asthma and arthritis, and are affected by depression and anxiety at double the rate of men.
When women go uninsured, these chronic problems go unaddressed. Getting tens of thousands more Maine women covered won’t eliminate these disparities, but it’s a necessary first step.
The Legislature’s failure to expand coverage is more than a simple sin of omission. It’s an intentional choice to deny health care. And tens of thousands of Maine women are getting shut out of access to health care because of that choice.
None of this is lost on women voters. A poll of likely Maine voters conducted by Public Policy Polling in early April found women voters think Maine should accept federal funds to expand health coverage — by a margin of nearly 30 points. While male voters supported expansion, too, the margin of support among women voters was twice as big as among men.
Furthermore, this poll indicated that opposing the health coverage expansion has electoral consequences — especially among women voters. Hearing that LePage vetoed the expansion, women voters said that made them less likely to vote for him, by a 20-point margin.
Those women voters appear to be exactly where LePage is losing the most ground: The poll found him running 12 points behind his leading opponent, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, among women voters.
Maine legislators who have joined LePage in opposing the expansion of MaineCare should be prepared for a similar response from women voters. After all, if you make a willful choice to deny women health care, you can’t exactly expect them to thank you for it.
It’s time to break down the barriers to affordable health care for women in Maine and say yes to federal funds to expand MaineCare. And if state legislators won’t do it, it’s time to elect more women who will.
Heidi Brooks is an internal medicine physician and is co-chair of the board of the Maine People’s Alliance. LeeAnn Hall is the executive director of the Alliance for a Just Society, a national research, policy and organizing network that advocates for quality, affordable health care for all.