October 22, 2018
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Bangor councilors at odds over letter opposing Obamacare repeal

BANGOR, Maine — City day-care owners expressing fears about ordinance changes that could force their businesses to close. Restaurant owners squeezed by a statewide minimum-wage increase. Residents battling code issues for several years.

City Councilor Cary Weston counts these as issues his fellow councilors should be addressing rather than writing a letter opposing the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, to Maine’s congressional representatives.

Council Chairman Joe Baldacci, however, said he pressed councilors last week for the two-page letter because estimates by the Maine Hospital Association indicate that repeal of the Affordable Care Act without an adequate replacement would cost three Bangor hospitals about $61 million annually.

Baldacci said he will mail the letter to U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin on Friday, after councilors finish signing it. Baldacci released a copy of it Wednesday.

In a recent letter of his own to a constituent, Weston said he felt that the council’s addressing national issues rather than the local problems he cited left city government staff in a difficult position.

“In each of these and many other instances, I’ve heard similar story lines,” Weston wrote. “Requests that go unanswered; staff that have growing task lists that own them rather than the other way around; city positions that are currently handling the responsibilities of what was once two or three individual positions.”

Weston elaborated on Wednesday, saying, “Every issue hits home but not every issue deserves a letter from the council. We have limited time and resources. Let’s use them wisely.”

The finished council letter to the delegation seems to anticipate Weston’s arguments, which is not surprising, as Weston made some of them at a council meeting on Jan. 24, when councilors voted 7-2 to send one. Weston and Councilor David Nealley opposed it.

Baldacci called the potential repeal “extremely important to the city.”

“The figures analyzed and put out show that it will have a staggering impact on Bangor hospitals,” Baldacci said. “If this was any other issue, we would be fighting it tooth and nail together [on the same side]. Let’s not get caught in ideological camps. This has impacts on all facets of Bangor.”

“This is not ideological. It is functional,” Weston said. “It’s about where we should be directing our best efforts.”

David Winslow, vice president of financial policy at the Maine Hospital Association, estimated that repealing the Affordable Care Act would collectively cost three of Bangor’s four hospitals — Acadia, Eastern Maine Medical Center, and St. Joseph Healthcare Center — $61 million annually and $610 million over 10 years. A repeal of the Affordable Care Act would have no direct financial impact on Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, Winslow said Tuesday.

The loss of coverage to those insured under the Affordable Care Act means that hospitals would be forced to provide more free care, which increases their costs.

The Affordable Care Act benefits an estimated 588,000 Mainers with its requirement that insurers cover preventive care at no cost to beneficiaries. About 8,000 state residents get dependent coverage until age 26 and 431,000 Mainers benefit from the law’s prohibition on lifetime limits. About 1,000 Bangor residents have health insurance coverage due to the act, according to the council letter, although the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that as many as 2,000 benefit in the city.

Statewide, about 75,000 Maine residents purchase health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Insurers selling policies to that group — who don’t get insurance through work or government programs such as Medicaid and Medicare — requested double-digit rate increases for 2017. The average increases for individual plans ranged from about 14 percent to 24 percent for this year.

“A repeal of the Act without a replacement with equal or better revisions will result in thousands of people losing or being unable to obtain coverage for themselves or their families,” the Council letter states.

The Affordable Care Act also has provisions that hospitals have criticized, including cuts to Medicare reimbursement rates. Baldacci has said he does recognize the act is flawed, but that doesn’t warrant a total repeal.

The delegation’s positions differ. King and Pingree have said that a rushed repeal of the Affordable Care Act would be disastrous. Collins unveiled new legislation aimed at replacing the act, but she previously voted to support a budget plan that set the stage for repeal. Poliquin has said he would favor a repeal if its replacement includes coverage for pre-existing health conditions and allows children to stay on their parents’ plan until age 26.

Baldacci said he agreed with Weston’s point about keeping a local focus. The dispute between Baldacci and Weston was not personal, both said. They met to discuss their differences twice this week, Baldacci said, and they agreed to work together on a couple of local issues, specifically to help C&L Aviation Group of Bangor find a home for a mechanic’s school in Bangor and to oppose proposed LePage administration cuts to general assistance.

Baldacci called the meetings on Sunday and Monday a “racquetball and beer summit” in which Baldacci won both games. The games were close. Baldacci said Weston had better court coverage, but that Baldacci had a better serve.

Weston did not deny the losses, but implied that he might have thrown both games to keep Baldacci happy.

“I appreciate any civil opportunity to make Joe feel better about himself. I hope my efforts weren’t unnoticed,” Weston said wryly. “I have children who don’t like to lose and maybe that doesn’t go away as you get older.”

BDN writers Jackie Farwell and Abigail Curtis contributed to this report.


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