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Maine House Gives Initial OK to Universal Health Care Study
04/01/2014   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Supporters of universal health care are applauding an initial vote in the Maine House today that would authorize a study of implementing such a system in Maine. It's not the first time the issue has been studied in the state. But as Patty Wight reports, it's the first time supporters say the idea has gotten traction.

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The question of whether Maine should attempt a universal health care system has moved like a pendulum over the past decade or so in the Legislature. In 2001, lawmakers approved a study to assess whether universal health care would work in Maine. Though the results from Mathematica Policy Research were generally favorable, the switch never happened.

But supporters of the idea and the bill say things are different now.

"Probably Maine is worse off today, I suspect, than it was in 2002 when the Mathematica study was done," says Joe Lendvai of MaineAllCare, a group dedicated to achieving universal health care. Lendvai says it's all the more reason to get current data.

Wendy Wolf, of the Maine Health Access Foundation, says in health care-years, 2002 may as well be the Ice Age. "When you think about what has changed since that time, you look at the rampant increase in insurance premium costs, the changes in benefit structure, the aging of our population, changes in Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement."

The bill approved by the Maine House is an amended version of the original that sought to implement a single-payer system in Maine. Supporters say good, hard data is needed before Maine can decide whether to move forward with universal coverage, and exactly what form it should take.

Democrat Paul McGowan says this bill is an opportunity to take a big-picture look at health care. "This is not about who should pay for it, it's not about how we accomplish it, but to embrace a vision that says every resident of Maine will have access to affordable, quality health care."

Democrat Richard Farnsworth says even though insurance under the Affordable Care Act is more accessible, its affordability is relative. He told lawmakers about a store clerk he recently met who was happy to have access to subsidized insurance from the online Marketplace, but her premium is still a hardship, not to mention deductibles.

"It made it necessary for her to realign her whole budget in order to deal with that. Because at $9.50 an hour, it really made it very difficult to afford that $45 a month," Farnsworth said.

While supporters of the bill emphasized its low-risk nature as a study, some Republicans think it's still a waste. Republican Dick Campbell says changes to health care should be determined by stakeholders, not a study. And Lance Harvell doesn't think Maine will be successful if it attempts universal care as a state.

"Now I'm going to surprise a few of you people here. I actually support single-payer health care, but it has to happen at the national level," Harvell said.

Despite reservations, the bill passed 91 to 52 and garnered three Republican votes. It faces further votes in the Senate and House.

Wendy Wolf of the Maine Health Access Foundation says if the bill ultimately passes, the question is whether there is the political willpower to follow. "You can have great studies, but they will sit on the shelf unless you have the right champions carrying them forward," she says.

Wolf says after the 2002 single-payer study, then-Gov. John Baldacci opted instead for his Dirigo Health Reform. And while the Affordable Care Act opens a door to universal coverage by allowing states to apply for waivers in 2017 and establish their own health systems, Wolf thinks the federal reform law first deserves a chance to achieve its goals.

View the entire Mathematica study on the feasibility of single-payer health care in Maine from 2002.



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