Retiree Donna Weiner shows some of the daily prescription medications that she needs and pays over $6,000 a year through a Medicare prescription drug plan at her home, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in Longwood, Fla. Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP

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As COVID deaths and cases are falling and vaccinations are increasing, it’s time to move beyond the emergency footing that’s affected all of us. With the legislation being negotiated between Congress and President Joe Biden, we can grasp a major opportunity to improve health care for all Americans.

What’s happened during the pandemic has shown that sickness isn’t just something harming individuals.

Even just considering the economy, we know the pandemic has been damaging. Global supply chain problems have slowed manufacturing and made some goods hard to access. Hiring slowed down when the delta variant struck, even as the unemployment rate has dropped considerably to under 5 percent, a big drop since the 2020 recession.

And the recovery from the pandemic has laid bare other issues.

For instance, getting back to paid work is harder for American women, the main caretakers for family members of all ages. Our country continues to have very limited paid family leave compared to the rest of the world.

We also do too little to support children and parents with small children. The differences by country are stark. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. government spends $500 per toddler each year for childcare, while the average among wealthy nations is $14,000 a year. The U.S. spends the least among major countries on education and caring for children under five, creating early gaps in learning among children starting kindergarten.

Different policies can help everyone thrive, to meet their own potential through their talents and hard work. People have more freedom when they have great health care, can take care of their children and loved ones, can afford prescription drugs, start businesses and have a healthy planet and environment.

In the next weeks and months, legislative sausage-making in Congress should yield progress on health care.

Biden’s Build Back Better Plan includes adding dental, vision and hearing benefits to Medicare, making lives better for many millions.

Americans pay high prices for prescriptions compared to people in other countries. Those prices would come down by allowing Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies. The plan would also continue the support for buying private health coverage put in place early in the Biden administration.

It’s highly likely this plan won’t get a single Republican vote. Democrats should unite to push back on pharmaceutical company lobbyists and donors, and deliver on lower drug prices.

Beyond health care, Build Back Better helps Americans care for their families, provides tax cuts for working class and middle class people, funds community colleges and vocational training, supports jobs for the transition to a clean energy economy and does much more.

Paying for all this relies on taxing wealthy individuals and corporations, which got tax breaks in 2017 and have done very well economically through the pandemic.

The best path forward is to start the chosen programs as soon as possible. While U.S. Rep. Jared Golden doesn’t like some parts of what’s been proposed, surely he recognizes that an awful lot of good would be done for his constituents, including on health care changes he supports and can tout in the 2022 campaign.

Next year, Mainers will be choosing between candidates with very different views about health care.

In 2017, then-U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a needed policy backed by the American people. If he had been successful, what would have happened? About 14 million people would have lost coverage just from the Medicaid cuts, which totalled $834 billion over a 10-year period, and states would have had funds limited even if needs increased.

When he was governor, Paul LePage blocked an expansion of MaineCare for tens of thousands after the Maine Legislature backed it multiple times and then Maine people voted to do so, by a vote of 59 percent to 41 percent. In contrast, Gov. Janet Mills has delivered on her promise to expand coverage to 70,000 people.

Before next year’s races heat up, we should improve health care now and pass legislation to help people thrive.

Amy Fried, Opinion columnist

Amy Fried has written about the media and politics, women in politics, Maine and American political culture, and political activism, and works to create change through the Rising Tide Center. A political...