For many working families in Maine, a job isn’t enough to make ends meet. Between paying for rent, putting food on the table and meeting everyday expenses, there’s no money left for health insurance.
As we celebrate Labor Day, it’s a good time to reconsider a critical opportunity Maine has to improve the lives of nearly 70,000 people, including 3,000 veterans. Through the Affordable Care Act, Maine could provide access to affordable, high quality health care.
Expansion of Medicaid, called MaineCare here, would realize an incredible return on the investment by boosting our state’s economy, creating jobs and lowering health insurance costs for everyone, including those with private health insurance.
Unfortunately, Gov. Paul LePage has rejected this common-sense idea – vetoing bipartisan efforts to expand access five times – even though Republican and Democratic governors around the country have realized this opportunity is too good to pass up.
Maine, unlike the rest of New England, is missing a major opportunity for new economic growth, and thousands of Maine families are being put, unnecessarily, at risk of tragic health outcomes and bankruptcy caused by medical bills.
The facts are indisputable.
Hospitals are being hurt by refusing to expand Medicaid. As a new report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found, hospitals in expansion states are seeing declines in charity care — free medical services provided to income eligible individuals by nonprofit hospitals pursuant to state law. Reductions in charity care help to reduce cost shifting onto other policyholders and protect jobs.
The same report found Maine hospitals will lose out on nearly $900 million in state and federal Medicaid reimbursement over 10 years if Maine doesn’t expand Medicaid.
But the economic impact goes much further.
Over the next 10 years, Maine would receive $3.1 billion in federal Medicaid funding if Maine expanded Medicaid. This funding and the economic activity it would generate is likely to result in 3,100 new or retained jobs in the health care sector and the rest of our communities.
In states that have expanded Medicaid, the rate of people without insurance has declined by 38 percent, compared to just 9 percent in nonexpansion states.
It’s not too late to change course.
The federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost of covering all newly eligible individuals through 2016. After 2016, the federal share is slowly reduced until it reaches 90 percent by 2020. Maine’s investment pales in comparison to the federal dollars that will flow into Maine. For every $1 a state invests in Medicaid expansion, $13.41 in federal funds will flow into the state.
It is important to remember the majority of the nearly 70,000 who would gain access to affordable health care if Maine accepted the federal funds are employed, but are not offered affordable health insurance at their jobs. They work in many industries, including retail sales, food, health care, education, child care, farming, fishing and logging. They live next door or down the street. They care for our grandparents and our children, grow our food and make our communities stronger. They deserve the security and good health that comes with being able to see a doctor when they are sick or get hurt.
As the political season heats up and the gubernatorial and legislative races capture more headlines, there will be a temptation to scapegoat and attack low-income families in Maine. We’ll hear these working families are lazy or undeserving.
It’s just not true.
Maine’s economy is still sluggish and job growth is uneven and concentrated in just a few places. The facts are that Maine people are working harder than ever, sometimes in two or three jobs, but are having a tough time making ends meet. Wages aren’t keeping up with the price of a gallon of gas, and working families are falling further and further behind.
Access to affordable health care can help, especially in rural areas where hospitals are the largest employers.
Health care shouldn’t be a partisan issue – and for the Legislature it isn’t – and the well-being of Maine residents shouldn’t be put at risk to score political points or advance an ideological agenda.
Labor Day recognizes the incredible and enduring contribution working people have made to our country. It’s time we take the next step in advancing their plight and improving their lives.
Sara Gagné-Holmes is the executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit legal aid and advocacy organization that works to find solutions to poverty.