Simply put, Maine cannot confront its heroin epidemic — or strengthen its rural economy, for that matter — without expanding access to affordable health care.
Lack of health care for tens of thousands of Mainers is holding our state back, and people are dying as a result.
But the impacts go much further than hurting low-income working families in the state. It impacts every person in the state, by driving up the cost of health care.
State Sens. Roger Katz and Tom Saviello, both Republicans, have introduced legislation to expand access to health care by accepting new federal dollars to grow MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program.
Saviello, recognizing that he and Katz face significant challenges with Republican colleagues, told the Sun Journal that he has to try nonetheless.
“We have a great opportunity here, and we keep blocking it because of ideological differences. That’s what this is all about, it’s ideological differences,” Saviello said.
Gov. Paul LePage has vetoed Medicaid expansion five times, and when his office was asked about the newest effort, spokesperson Adrienne Bennett said: “As Yogi Berra said, ‘It’s deja vu all over again.’”
With lives in the balance, such a dismissive attitude is typical of the LePage administration and his enablers in the Legislature.
House Republican leader Ken Fredette told Maine Public Broadcasting, “As far as I am concerned, Medicaid expansion is off the table.”
The public, however, has a decidedly different take on the issue. A statewide poll, conducted by Republicans, found that 58 percent of voters support accepting federal money to expand Medicaid.
It’s no wonder. With heroin and opiate addictions destroying families across the state and treatment options being curtailed, Medicaid expansion offers a chance to save lives. While LePage and his allies pay lip-service to solving the drug epidemic, their true beliefs occasional slip out.
LePage basically told a townhall audience in Portland that people fighting with drug addiction are a lost cause.
Treatment, he said, doesn’t work. Narcan, a drug that can counter the effects of an overdose, doesn’t save lives, he said. It extends them. With such logic, it’s no wonder the governor fought hard to keep the life-saving medicine away from the people it could save.
And it’s no surprise that he opposes Medicaid expansion, which could provide much needed treatment. His attitude all along has been that if people can’t pull themselves up, then they aren’t worth saving.
While LePage’s callous attitude certainly is déjà vu all over again, the facts are just as persistent.
USA Today reported this week the results of a 20-month study of states that haven’t expanded Medicaid and found that overwhelmingly it’s working people who are suffering as a result.
“They toil in America’s fast-food restaurants, call centers and retail stores — yet as many as five million Americans remain not only poor but also uninsured, despite an array of state and federal policies specifically intended to help them get health care,” the newspaper wrote.
“These people are caught in a health care netherworld. Their employers classify them as part-time workers or independent contractors, therefore avoiding any obligation to provide health care. Their state governments have not expanded Medicaid to include low-wage earners. And government mandates set a standard for ‘affordable’ coverage that is not affordable at all for these families.”
The newspaper’s other major findings include: more and more workers are being classified as “independent contractors” or their hours are being cut so that their employers don’t have to provide health care coverage.
“The result is that millions of Americans have fallen through the cracks without insurance from their employers, the money to buy it themselves or the safety net from Medicaid,” USA Today reported.
Low-income, working families have become the grist in the modern American economy. They’re ground up while their prospects dim, particularly in rural areas where the economic recovery has lagged and new job creation is scarce.
Despite the protestation of LePage and some Republicans in the Legislature, Maine voters understand this dynamic and realize that there’s a better way.
Democrats have been on board with Medicaid expansion since the beginning, and a few brave and thoughtful Republicans have joined them, but so far they have been unable to find the two-thirds majority they need to overcome a guaranteed LePage veto.
But with so much at stake, the evidence so clear and the public support so strong, perhaps this year is different.
Medicaid may not be on Fredette’s table, but the number of people sitting with him keeps getting smaller.