On May 12th, the Maine State Legislature held a public hearing on LD 1045, An Act to Support Universal Health Care. LD 1045 aligns completely with Maine AllCare’s key principles for health care legislation. It includes universal coverage, public funding, comprehensive care, and coverage independent from employment. It chooses public good over profits.
In around two hours of oral testimony, over twenty people presented personal stories and strong arguments in favor of universal health care in Maine. They included legislators, active and retired physicians, psychiatrists and mental health counselors, small business owners, a veteran, and members of the Unitarian Universalists.
Some testimonials went as I expected: horror stories of patients navigating the minefield of private health insurance companies in our country. What I did not expect was how many doctors and other caregivers feel the exact same way.
Here are four of the most common themes that arose during the testimony:
Employer-based health care is a bad idea
During the financial crisis in 2007, many people lost their jobs and, with them, their health insurance. Over a decade later, the U.S. still had not taken steps from preventing this tragedy from repeating itself. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and continuing into 2021, tens of millions of people lost their jobs, and, again, their health insurance. Many testified that losing insurance during a pandemic hurts gravely. A global public health crisis is exactly when it makes the most sense to have people insured and unafraid to seek medical treatment.
Lynn Cheney, an Affordable Care Act (ACA) Navigator and board member of Maine AllCare, asserted, “COVID-19 has provided the ultimate reason that health care should not be tied to employment.”
We need dramatic change, not tinkering around the edges
Many testified that small fixes to our current health care system would not be enough to get Mainers the kind of health care they deserve. Even many people who are covered with high deductible health insurance are afraid to risk bankruptcy by seeking needed care. The status quo in this country means that those who do not have enough money do not have a consistent relationship with doctors. Instead, they only visit the hospital when something goes very wrong.
Valerie Dornan, a member of Maine AllCare, shared a heartbreaking story about her mother dying in the hospital with “no confidence in a health care system she never had access to.” Dornan said about her mother, “by the time she was eligible for Medicare, going to the doctor was as alien to her as it would be to a martian.”
Private health care hampers caregivers’ ability to treat their patients
Several active and retired physicians and mental health professionals testified in favor of universal health care in Maine. Many described how their work was made more difficult by insurance companies. They disliked being forced to double-check whether a certain procedure or prescription drug was covered by the insurance companies. They instead wanted more freedom to focus on their patients’ health. Like patients, doctors and psychiatrists find it difficult to navigate the bureaucracy of health insurance companies.
Caryl Heaton, DO, a family physician and board member of Maine AllCare, described her time working in a large group medical practice. She explained, “I found we had not had an increase in payment from Aetna Insurance in nine years. And we could not cancel Aetna, because, in one form or another, it covered about 30% of our patients. But during that same time… premiums went up every year. Physicians need to understand how and why they are paid. That’s impossible when you take 27 different payers.”
Humans have inherent worth and dignity, so stop treating them like disposable products
A veteran described how the publicly-funded Veterans Affairs (VA) health insurance program saved his life. When a routine annual checkup found a suspicious spot on his body, he did not have to worry about costs when he got an x-ray. He explained that a private system would contain no incentive for him to get an expensive scan nor for an insurance company to pay. But this would have likely cost him his life: the x-ray revealed a cancerous spot that needed to be removed immediately.
On a similar note, many others testified about the overwhelming focus on money in our current system. Under the status quo in this country, profits are too often seen as more important than human lives.
Members of the Unitarian Universalists shared their belief in the inherent sense of worth and dignity of each human. They see a moral imperative for all people to be healthy and cared for regardless of their level of wealth.
Testimony against universal health care in Maine
Although testimony on LD 1045 was overwhelmingly in favor, two speakers, Kristine Ossenfort and Katherine Pelletreau, argued against the legislation. Both women have a direct connection to the health care industry.
Ossenfort works for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Maine. She argued that universal health care is too expensive and difficult for a single state to implement.
Pelletreau is the Executive Director of Maine Association for Health Plans, which represents clients such as Aetna, Anthem, and Cigna. She made similar arguments as Ossenfort and especially emphasized the failed attempt to achieve universal health care in Vermont.
The testimony showed overwhelming support for universal health care in Maine, from legislators and their constituents alike. For too many, our current health care system is too expensive, confusing, and inhumane. Mainers from a variety of backgrounds understand that the status quo is unacceptable for many reasons and they want big changes.
But the end of the public hearing showed that health insurance corporations won’t go away without a fight. Proponents of universal healthcare must understand the types of arguments these companies make to avoid giving up their power. That way, we can address their talking points head-on and respond with more convincing arguments of our own.
Ezra Sassaman is a freelance journalist. My name is Ezra Sassaman. A 27-year-old Bar Harbor resident, he is interested in local, state-level, and national politics. In May, Maine AllCare asked him to report on the first public hearing on LD 1045, An Act to Support Universal Health Care.