Lawmakers should expand Medicaid, improve lives

Tuesday was a frustrating day.

For the second straight day my email wasn’t working right. The calendar on my computer started going crazy. I found a stack of bills in a new, secret hiding place on the desk. I forgot my lunch.

It was just one of those days.

Then I looked at Facebook, where a friend of my posted this: “12 month CAT scan results: Nothing growing in me that shouldn’t! One year cancer free!”

It was great news, and all those other things just seemed silly.

The small problems – as we call them when talking to my son – that had kept me preoccupied for much of the day, that had made me cross with my family and friends, moved back into perspective.

If we’re lucky enough to be healthy, to have people we care about and who care about us in our lives, and if we can manage – sometimes as tough as it may be – to make ends meet, then we’re doing OK.

Unfortunately, too many of our friends and neighbors don’t have their health and can’t make ends meet. They’re one illness or accident away from ruin.

Minor computer glitches and the niggling little challenges that tie many of us up in knots just aren’t that important. For thousands of Mainers, those little things don’t stack up against joblessness, lack of access to health care, chronic illness, disability or hungry children.

Right now, lawmakers in Augusta can do something that will help people facing real obstacles and directly improve the lives of nearly 70,000 Mainers.

Through the Affordable Care Act, the federal government has set aside funding to pay for expanding access to health care in Maine.

The expansion would help many people who are working but who don’t earn enough money to afford health insurance. It would protect them from an accident or illness that could send them into bankruptcy. It would help them to better manage chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. And it would make sure that they have access to a doctor for regular checkups and preventive care.

Part of my work includes helping the Cover Maine Now! Coalition, which supports expanded access to health care.

Cover Maine Now! includes more than 85 organizations around Maine, ranging from AARP, to the American Cancer Society, to the Maine Medical Association, to Catholic Charities and the Catholic Diocese of Portland.

The facts make a compelling case: Accepting federal dollars for expanded access to health care will save Maine an estimated $690 million over the next 10 years. It will stimulate nearly $350 million in economic activity and help create an estimated 3,100 jobs, according to the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

It’s a good deal. The federal government will pay 100 percent of the costs of the program for three years and then slowly reduce its share of expenses to a still-high 90 percent over the next decade.

One of the primary drivers of health care costs in Maine – and nationally – is bad debt and charity care. It’s the cost, born by all of us, when people without health insurance and without the means to pay for care end up in the emergency room.

By providing health insurance to more people, we can reduce the overall costs in our health care system and help to restrain the price of care for everyone, including people with private insurance.

The opportunity to expand access to health care makes financial sense. But that’s only part of the equation.

In a recent poll conducted by the nonpartisan Maine People’s Resource Center, more than 68 percent of Mainers said they supported expansion. A deeper look at the numbers explains why.

More than 65 percent of people reported that either a close friend or family member has lacked health insurance, and nearly 50 percent said that they or a family member had delayed medical care for fear of the cost.

Lawmakers in Augusta can do something about that. They can make life better, less scary and lot more healthful for thousands and thousands of Mainers.

The biggest hurdle is whether or not members of the Legislature and the governor can put things in perspective and put aside the small things – and some large things – that keep them apart and do the right thing.

There are plenty of issues to fight about. Here’s one where lawmakers can come together and change lives.