PORTLAND, Maine — Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Shenna Bellows touted her support for a universal health care program and decried incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act during a Thursday morning news conference in Portland.
The event took place the same day the Bellows campaign took to the airwaves to play up one of its star supporters, native Mainer and bestselling author Stephen King. In the latest campaign television advertisement, King, a longtime donor to liberal candidates and causes, calls Bellows a “breath of fresh air” and said he has “never worked so hard or hoped so strongly for a change in leadership.”
During Thursday’s news conference, Bellows sought to differentiate herself from Collins on the topic of health care, saying Maine’s senior senator — who has a wide lead in fundraising and polling — fell in line with her party in votes to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act.
Bellows also criticized Collins for endorsing Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who five times has vetoed efforts by Democratic lawmakers in Maine to expand federal Medicaid coverage in the state as allowed under Obamacare.
For her part, Bellows said she believes the Affordable Care Act is a “good first step” but said Congress should take steps toward the type of universal, government-run health care program used in Canada and many other developed nations.
“Partisan politics have stopped too many Mainers from getting the health care they need,” said Bellows, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “No matter which way the political wind blows, I will stand up for universal health care for all.”
Lance Dutson, spokesman for Collins’ campaign, cited Canadians traveling to Maine for medical treatments as an indication of flaws in the universal health care model.
“A Canadian-style government-run system leads to excessive delays in care, prevents people from seeing the health care providers of their choice and stifles innovation,” he said. “We have seen in Maine the number of Canadians who come to Fort Kent and Bangor for treatments because they cannot get the care they need in a timely manner.”
Supporters of the expansion of Medicaid, which is distributed in the state under the MaineCare program, say doing so would take advantage of federal dollars to provide coverage to 70,000 Mainers who can’t afford it and don’t qualify for aid.
The argument for expansion holds that it would help more Mainers stay healthy and drive down costs for hospitals, who might otherwise need to treat the uninsured through emergency room visits and never recoup the costs.
The LePage administration has argued that, while the expansion would be covered by federal funds to start, administrative costs would not, and a percentage of the additional MaineCare costs eventually would shift to the state budget, which can’t absorb any more increases.
Phil Caper, a board member with organization Maine AllCare, said at the Thursday news conference that establishing a universal health care system would save Maine $1 billion in annual health care costs, which would free up more money to rebuild roads, expand broadband Internet or tackle other pressing infrastructure needs.
State Rep. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham, said at the event a 2010 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study found that 109,000 Maine adults went without needed medical care that year because it was too expensive.
“Letting people suffer to make an ideological point is not leadership,” said Sanborn, who has practiced family medicine for 25 years. “As a Mainer, as a doctor and as an elected official, I can’t stand by while tens of thousands of Mainers are left without the health care coverage they should have gotten years ago.”
Supporters of Collins on Thursday countered, arguing while health care reform was needed, Obamacare is riddled with problems.
Greg Dugal, president of the Maine Innkeepers Association and the Maine Restaurant Association, said provisions in the law defining the work week as 30 hours, seasonal employees as working just 120 days and large businesses as having just 50 employees have ensnared many small Maine businesses in Obamacare’s complicated and potentially expensive regulatory net.
“I can certainly see all kinds of things that are not right about the Affordable Care Act,” Dugal said.