BANGOR, Maine — Greg Howard drove 1,500 miles in a rented ambulance to collect stories from Mainers who want health care reform.
The trip was part of Change That Works, a state-by-state effort launched by the Service Employees International Union in support of national health care reform.
One hundred seventy-five stories and 2,500 signatures were collected during the Healthcare Reform ’09 Tour, which ended Friday afternoon in front of Sen. Susan Collins’ office in Bangor. Three organizers met with the senator’s aides to present the stories.
The ambulance also visited Rep. Chellie Pingree in Portland and Rep. Mike Michaud in Lewiston on Friday. Howard and the organizers were to meet at Sen. Olympia Snowe’s office in Bangor after meeting with Collins’ aides.
Howard said a goal of the tour was to engage the public and Maine’s congressional delegation in an open, civil dialogue about health care.
“We’ve never been the ones to yell and scream, we don’t chain ourselves to people’s offices,” he said. “The ultimate thing is, whatever passes — and we are convinced something will pass — it has to be affordable,” he said.
“A miracle is a mirage if you can’t afford it. If you can’t afford it, it’s almost like a cruel joke,” he added.
Nineteen people showed up in support of the effort, which has made similar stops at 20 locations across the state since the tour began Monday in Madawaska.
Howard said he and other organizers collected the stories in manila folders designed to look like medical files because “everybody is a patient waiting to happen.”
“This probably won’t do anything, but it makes me feel good to get out here,” said Todd Blanchette of Bangor, a special education technician who says he has health care only during the school year.
“During the summer months, I’m on my own,” he said near the ambulance on Friday.
Blanchette said his lack of insurance during the summer makes him reticent to go outside and enjoy the kinds of activities he normally does.
“I can’t handle any more debt,” he said.
Howard said reactions across the state have been positive, despite “all the acrimony that’s been going on with health care.”
“In the rural areas, people were very happy we came out. Very few people come to Eastport or Machias,” he said.
Howard came across people that disagreed with his position, but none who were angry or outraged at the possibility of single-payer health care.
What he did encounter was evidence that the U.S. health care system is broken. He was expecting to meet a lot of people without insurance — what surprised him was how often he met people who couldn’t afford the insurance they had.
“What we’ve found along the way is that there are a lot of people who are small-business people who are underinsured,” he said. “They pay a huge amount of money and have a very high deductible.”
Howard cited a study from the American Journal of Medicine which found that more than 60 percent of bankruptcies in the United States are due to health care costs. “Sixty to 70 percent of those have insurance,” he added.
“That was something that was consistent on an anecdotal level,” he said.
One attendee, Dan Williams of Bangor, had a heart attack in December 2007.
“I flat-lined on the way to the hospital,” he said Friday afternoon outside Collins’ office. “And they brought me back to this,” he said, referring to his medical bills.
“I have no insurance, and now I’m behind the eight ball for the rest of my life with $35,000 in medical bills,” he said.
“That’s just two days in the hospital.”
For some who were there, Friday’s rally at the federal building was a way to show support for those who struggle with high health care costs.
“It’s not really about me,” said Cindy Todd of Etna of the lack of affordable health insurance. “It’s more about what it says about us as a country.”