April 23, 2019
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Maine Democrats, GOP offer little health care help for middle class

While I appreciate Rep. Walter Kumiega’s Sept. 12 opinion piece on the new Republican health care “reform” bill (“Republican health care law already causing price spikes, fear”), I will confess to a somewhat cynical response given its clear, partisan bent. While my experience with the Legislature and legislators on both sides of the aisle has not shaken my conviction that our public servants, by and large, mean well, both parties have consistently failed Maine people when it comes to ensuring that we all enjoy access to comprehensive, affordable health insurance.

Despite some far-reaching and well-intentioned efforts at reform over the past two decades, I remain resoundingly underwhelmed by what Democrats have offered solidly middle class, working, Maine people (many of us self-employed) who cannot afford decent health insurance any more so than can the two working parents, two kids in daycare, Maine family with a home, two cars, $12,000 in savings and a household income of $51,000 per year who are currently blessed with near free, comprehensive coverage under MaineCare.

Those of us who share the same affordability problem as my hypothetical family but who fall on the wrong side of the entitlement eligibility line, are nonetheless left to fend for ourselves in the hopelessly unaffordable individual and small-group commercial health insurance markets. To add insult to injury, our existence goes largely unacknowledged.

I did not hear a crescendo of Maine Democratic legislators championing the plight of the left behind last session (or the one before that, or the one before that). Rather, I heard apologists for federal health care reform which continues to throw folks like me overboard without a life preserver while heralding all the new folks who will be helped.

Because I view it as moral issue that more people die in this country every month for lack of health insurance than died from the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks (no Toto, you cannot get all the health care you need through the hospital emergency room), I derive as much comfort from the standard, Maine Democratic Party platitude about “having achieved one of the lowest rates of uninsureds in the nation” as I would if we were talking about slavery rather than health insurance and the Dems were slapping themselves on the back for having achieved one of the lowest rates of slavery in the nation.

Some slaves, not OK. Some uninsured, not OK, particularly when some 60 percent of our population enjoys taxpayer provided or heavily subsidized health insurance (e.g. beneficiaries of Medicare, MaineCare, military health care, government employees, etc., and, oh yes, legislators, the only seasonal “state employees” who enjoy year-round coverage).

That said, the new Republican health care law, while well intentioned, is, in my view, pretty dreadful and will undoubtedly raise already unaffordable premiums to stratospheric new heights for many. I read the bill and surmised it was written primarily, if not exclusively, by the health insurance lobby, which has never been uncomfortable with new regulatory bodies and requirements (as provided for in spades under the new law), so long as it has had the dominant hand in shaping those regulatory bodies and requirements.

The answer to our health care system woes lies not only with improving quality of care, coordinating health care, emphasizing preventative care, managing chronic disease and vague references to “controlling costs.” We must also put an end to the administrative absurdity and moral bankruptcy of our wildly inefficient, wildly inequitable, multi-tiered health care system that has Maine people fortunate enough to have health insurance coverage segregated by risk pool, health plan and payer.

Had the good representative made a clarion call for single payer health care in Maine, my response would have been excited and enthusiastic rather than cynical. I look forward to helping educate Rep. Kumiega and his colleagues on the merits and affordability of single payer health care in Maine in the interest of finally achieving true health care system reform that benefits all of Maine people.

Alice Knapp is a former health insurance regulator. During her tenure she was appointed the first director of the Consumer Health Care Division within the Maine Bureau of Insurance. She lives in Richmond.

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