Medicaid expansion is the law.
Voters made sure of that.
But when the Maine Legislature reconvenes next week, the fight over health insurance coverage for more than 70,000 Mainers will begin anew.
Gov. Paul LePage remains steadfast in opposition to expansion, despite overwhelming support for it from Maine voters. And Republicans in the Legislature – some of whom are running for governor – are racing to the right, hoping to lock down the Trump-LePage wing of the party by being harsher and more cruel than their partymates.
The governor has made it clear that he has no intention of implementing Medicaid expansion in good faith. His criteria are nothing more than a list of his own failures that he demands someone else solve. And even then, you can bet that he would still refuse to do his duty.
Before the holidays, in a stunning display of arrogance, the governor said that the Legislature had to eliminate waiting lists for public assistance programs his administration has ignored, fix the state’s psychiatric hospital, Riverview, (a $60 million problem that LePage and Mary Mayhew, the former commission of the Department of Health and Human Services, created and refused to resolve) and meet a number of other ridiculous demands.
Simply put, unless some Democrats go along, the governor and his followers in the Republican Party cannot stop Medicaid expansion. One way or another, it will happen.
He continues to cite made-up numbers for what Medicaid expansion will cost. He says $60 million. The nonpartisan Office of Program and Fiscal Review says $13.6 million in the first year – and that number could potentially go down.
The governor refuses to work with the Legislature, putting up roadblocks to even the basics of cooperation. He says the Maine Revenue Service and DHHS can’t cooperate with the Legislature to answer questions.
But ultimately the governor will fail. He will fail because nearly 60 percent of Maine voters said “yes” to Medicaid expansion. He will fail because he’s wrong on the policy. And he will fail because there is a new cohort of leaders who will make sure.
I worked on the campaign to expand Medicaid in Maine last year, and during that effort I had the great opportunity to meet some incredible, rising advocates who have found their political voices for the first time.
Two women stand out for their courage and their bravery, although there were many more.
They told their stories – publicly and loudly. And they stood up to the criticism and attacks that can come from public political advocacy.
Kathy Phelps is a hairdresser who has worked from the time she was a teenager. She suffers COPD, a lung disease that makes it hard for her to breathe. Despite working, she wasn’t able to afford insurance or the oxygen she needs. Medicaid expansion will help her.
When she stepped forward to tell her story, she was attacked for the way that she looks. People blamed her for her illness. But she stood firm and her friends and family rallied around her.
LePage cannot intimidate her.
Donna Wall is a fighter and a fierce advocate for herself and her children. She escaped an abusive relationship and is caring for her three adult children, who have autism, alone.
When her two twin boys, who are nonverbal, turned 18, Wall lost her health insurance. Her full-time job is taking care of her family. But she also works at night delivering newspapers because that’s when her boys are asleep. She sells plasma to try to fill in the gaps, to treat her family to McDonald’s once and a while. Medicaid expansion will help her.
LePage cannot undermine her dedication, cannot deter her commitment.
There are thousands upon thousands of people like Phelps and Wall who work hard, play by the rules and still fall through the cracks of our health care system.
They are real people, with names and families. With people who love, with bills to pay and often with jobs that don’t pay enough to get by.
Next week, when the Legislature convenes, the conversation around Medicaid expansion will focus on numbers, dates and the politics of the fight between health care advocates and LePage.
But we better damn not forget that Medicaid expansion is first and foremost about people and making sure that more than 70,000 of them can see a doctor when they’re sick or injured.
If lawmakers forget – if they ignore the voters and their own conscience – may they be haunted by the names and faces of the people they abandon.