What if I told you that there is one bill that the Legislature could pass that would create as many jobs within two years of enactment as were lost in the past five years from paper mill closures combined? Would you be in favor of it? Would you talk to the candidates running for office about how important it is that they pass it when session convenes in January?
Those aren’t hypothetical questions. The great news is that from now until Nov. 8 you can ask your state House and Senate candidates to seize on this opportunity when they come knocking at your door asking for your vote. Maine’s newly elected Legislature will have an opportunity to pass the single best piece of economic stimulus and health care legislation we have seen in years.
Millions of dollars Mainers have already paid for through our federal taxes is available to us immediately. Passing a bill to expand Medicaid to bring our hard-earned money back — instead of sending it to other states — would not only restore good paying jobs with benefits in the rural communities that have suffered devastating losses in paper mill jobs, but it also will restore health insurance coverage for 40,000 people who were dropped from eligibility over the past four years and allow 30,000 additional low-income earners the ability to have health insurance through the MaineCare program.
How can so many jobs be created, you might ask? Consider the fact that Maine’s community health centers, which provide comprehensive and integrated primary medical, behavioral health, dental, pharmacy and other services to one in seven Mainers, are located in our state’s most rural and underserved communities, including in almost every mill town that has had a mass layoff or closure, such as Lincoln, Old Town, Millinocket, Bucksport and Madison or in neighboring towns, such as Rumford, Jay and Madawaska. Hospitals, community behavioral health service providers, nursing homes and other critical health care providers also serve these communities.
After passage of the Affordable Care Act, states all across the country, with the exception of Maine, saw a drop in their uninsured numbers largely because of the fact that the majority of them passed laws to increase access to health care services for their lowest income residents using millions in available federal funds to do so. Maine did not.
When people have health insurance, they get lower-cost preventive care, which in turn lowers costs for businesses and others paying private insurance premiums. Community health centers that proudly provide care to the uninsured receive little to no reimbursement for those services. But when our patients have coverage and the community health centers receive payment for services, it makes them stronger and allows them to hire more doctors, dentists, nurse practitioners and other staff in their communities. It is estimated that Maine would create approximately 4,000 jobs statewide by passing this one bill, which would more than counterbalance the number that were lost in the past five years because of mill closures and shutdowns.
If people question the economic benefits of such a move, they need only look to our neighbors across the border in New Hampshire, where the statewide chamber of commerce, otherwise known as the Business and Industry Association, helped lead the effort to not only pass legislation to allow New Hampshire to draw the federal funds to expand access to health coverage but also fought for the program to be reauthorized in the last legislative session.
Jim Roche, president of the Business and Industry Association, said in his testimony in January in support of HB 1696 before the New Hampshire Senate Finance Committee: “The BIA supports reauthorization of the NH Health Protection Program because it’s better for NH’s economic prosperity when individuals and their families are insured. BIA believes there is a strong, well-established connection between the health of the population and the state’s economic prosperity.”
Why is it acceptable that a Mainer living in Kittery doesn’t have the same access to health care as someone with the same situation living across the border in Portsmouth? Or why should someone in Porter, Maine, be denied access to preventive cancer screenings, while his or her neighbor down the road in Ossipee, New Hampshire, can get that potentially life-saving service? Why should living on one side of the border or the other matter when it comes to your health?
Those are important questions that have yet to be adequately addressed in Augusta but merit immediate answers and action.
Vanessa Santarelli is CEO of the Maine Primary Care Association, an organization that works to strengthen and sustain Maine’s Community Health Centers and its primary care system, particularly in rural and underserved areas.