Our health care system is broken and we need fundamental change

As a Mainer, a physician and a Maine AllCare board member, I was disappointed to learn that Maine Health Care Action will be unable to gather the needed signatures to get a universal health care Resolve on the ballot in 2023, as reported by the BDN on April 13.

Maine AllCare has advocated for universal, publicly funded health care for Maine since 2010. We hoped that the effort would give Maine voters the chance to send a clear message: Our health care system is broken, and we need fundamental change.

I believe that Maine Health Care Action may have succeeded if not for the COVID-19 pandemic, which all but eliminated in-person events and made it very difficult to gather signatures, despite the valiant efforts of dozens of volunteers. And I share their belief that this effort is not finished.

It’s true that campaigns in other states to establish universal health care, through ballot initiatives and legislation, have so far been unsuccessful — the April 13 article mentions Vermont. But the real failure is not a lack of resources, as is often stated. In the U.S., we already spend far more on health care than other developed countries — 16.8 percent of GDP compared with Germany’s 11.7 percent, the next highest — yet have worse outcomes.  Nor is it lack of a workable model. A 2019 fiscal study by the Maine Center for Economic Policy shows one model for how universal health care in Maine would cover everyone and save money.

The April 13 article notes that health care reform is a “perennial subject” in the Legislature, and this is true. But I believe this indicates the need for fundamental reform, not an argument against it. Fixing our dysfunctional health care system requires big changes, not tinkering around the edges, and mustering the political will to make those changes is a steep climb.
The article misses other parts of the picture as well. Describing the consensus report of a 2018 legislative task force on health care reform as “tepid,” for one. One of the outcomes of this task force was the formation of a Joint Standing Committee on Health Care, Insurance and Financial Services, which has been instrumental in keeping a legislative focus on health care reform.

Among the reforms considered by the Legislature was LD 1045, An Act to Support Universal Health Care, which was passed and became law in 2021. This new law provides one pathway to achieving universal health care in Maine, contingent on action by Congress.

At Maine AllCare, we know there is strong public support for remaking our health care system to be fair, affordable and economically sound. Our tens of thousands of supporters and the countless stories of people struggling to get health care without suffering financial hardship show us how deeply Mainers understand this need.

Look at any movement for social or political change, and you’ll see that it takes years, sometimes decades, for a sound idea to gain traction and become reality. I believe that universal, publicly funded health care is one of those ideas, and that we are gaining traction, bit by bit. Maine Health Care Action’s suspension of signature-gathering is far from the end of the story.

Ted Sussman has been a physician in Houlton for more than 40 years and joined the Maine AllCare board in 2021. He is a past governor of the Maine chapter of the American College of Physicians, and also served on the Maine Health Access Foundation board. This article was published in the Bangor Daily News on April 25, 2022.