Supporters of national health care reform gathered at Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s Bangor office Wednesday to deliver the message that thousands of Mainers support national health care reform.

Approximately 45 people, many of them holding signs and waving placards, delivered some of what they said were more than 35,000 letters, postcards, e-mails and online petitions that urge Congress to pass a national health care reform bill. Similar events were scheduled today in Caribou and Lewiston.

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These were the latest in a string of public forums and press events that have swept Maine as Congress struggles with the issue in Washington. The congressional debate will continue in earnest after the August recess.

Supporters of the plan argued that reform will save taxpayer money in the long run and extend the lives of thousands of uninsured or underinsured people. Opponents, on the other hand, said nationalized health care amounts to government intrusion into private lives that will consume vast amounts of taxpayer dollars.

Wednesday’s event, organized by the Service Employees International Union’s Maine Change that Works; the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees; the Maine People’s Alliance; and Organizing for America, featured impassioned pleas from several people.

“Everybody’s a patient waiting to happen,” said Greg Howard, a spokesman for Maine Change that Works. “So many people don’t realize that they’re underinsured. All it takes is one slip or fall and your life is destroyed.”

Jim Hooper of Hermon said he learned that lesson 14 years ago when his son was born premature, which required three months of hospitalization. Hooper’s employer-provided insurance policy stipulated that he would be responsible for only $1,500 in co-pays per year — or so he thought. When more than $100,000 in hospital bills came in, Hooper realized that he was liable for about $20,000 with his insurance paying the rest.

“It took me several years to pay that off,” he told reporters. “If people are happy with their private health insurance, they haven’t had to make a claim yet.”

Dr. Karen Hover, a Bangor-based physician who specializes in providing treatment for uninsured patients, said for her the debate centers on whether health care costs a little now or a lot later. About 30 percent of her clients are uninsured. In a recent analysis of her diabetic patients, Hover found a direct correlation between a person’s health and the quality of his or her insurance. Those with inadequate insurance or no insurance at all lagged far behind their medical targets, which Hover said will inevitably lead to serious complications sooner, such as amputations, kidney failure and diabetic blindness. Because of their conditions, most of them will eventually land in the Medicare system, she said.

“We need to take care of people now because they’ll be a more expensive problem later,” said Hover.

Sen. Joseph Perry, D-Bangor, outlined some of the state Legislature’s efforts to improve health care, but said federal leadership is essential.

“This is a problem that is too big for any one state to take on alone,” he said. “We need to push this over the finish line.”

Sue Berryhill of Garland observed the event from a distance while holding a sign that said, “Government stay out of my health care and my life.” Berryhill was the lone counter-protester, a fact she attributed to people being unable to attend because they were working.

“It would be a disaster,” Berryhill said of the latest health care reform proposals working their way through Congress. “We need insurance reform, but we don’t need a government takeover.”

At one point, one of the people involved in the main event approached Berryhill while she was being interviewed by a reporter and asked whether she was on Medicare. Berryhill had “Veteran” registration plates on her vehicle.

“Yes, I am. So what?” responded Berryhill heatedly. “I paid into Medicaid for years.” Asked whether she had government-provided coverage, Berryhill said she did but argued that it wasn’t relevant.

“My husband was in the military for 20 years,” she said. “That is a debt to our servicemen. That is not socialized health care.”

Tarren Bragdon, director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a group that has opposed government-run health care both in Maine and across the country, said his organization will continue to spread its message.

“There is a real need for federal health care reform, and we need more choices when it comes to private health insurance,” said Bragdon. “We aren’t just saying no to reform. The goal is to cover as many people as possible with private health insurance.”

Julia Wanzco, Sen. Snowe’s press secretary, said Snowe carefully will consider the materials delivered to her office Wednesday.

“Senator Snowe always welcomes feedback from Mainers and will thoroughly review the letters and petitions that were dropped off at the office today,” said Wanzco in a prepared statement. “As the health care debate continues to move forward, Sen. Snowe will do as she always has and make decisions and advocate for policies and reforms she believes are in the best interest of her constituents, the American people and the nation as a whole.”


Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.