Why a Maine doctor becomes a senator

By Geoff Gratwick
Bangor Daily News, Jan. 27, 2013

For the first time in recent memory there are four doctors in the Maine State Legislature, and I am honored to be one of them. It is extraordinarily exciting to be part of this small group bent on returning medicine to its original goal: the care of patients.

I have spent the last 40 years caring for people one at a time. Sadly, over these years I have seen medicine change from a profession focused on patients to a big business driven more and more by money issues. We need to return medicine to its original purpose: promoting wellness and taking care of the sick. Health care should be for people, not stockholders.

The arrival of four members of a usually nonpolitical profession in Augusta is no accident. The election of physicians to the Legislature was not a coordinated effort by some outside group. It shows instead that we are witnessing a sea change in the way Mainers are thinking about health care. And doctors are only the tip of the needle. There are now 14 health care professionals in the Legislature, as well as many others who heard from the citizens of Maine as they went door-to-door that the cost of health care is ruinous.

Change will not happen easily because medical care is dominated by the for-profit sector. The medical-industrial complex is made up of insurance companies, big pharma and megacorporations. It is immensely powerful and has undermined reform efforts many times in the past. But virtually all Americans now recognize that our current health care system is catastrophically expensive, unsustainable and close to being terminally broken. We need to reframe the conversation so that once again we are talking about health, not profit.

As always the question is how. The immediate goal for the 126th Legislature is to make the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) work for Maine. Whatever its flaws (and I think I know many of them), the ACA is the law of the land. It is a first step in the right direction, a step toward accessible and affordable health care for all. To disregard it will deprive many middle class and working people of health care and cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

The ACA can be adapted to fit the needs of Maine. We need health care exchanges that function, expanded coverage for those now denied it and a transition from a system based heavily on financial gain to one driven by best practices and compassion. We face a further challenge because thus far there has not been an executive branch task force in Augusta leading the way. A better health system will require all three branches of government to work together to devise the best plan for Maine.

There are many other problems facing our state: not enough jobs, the need for more skilled workers, a shortage of educational funding and environmental and social service issues. But if we can heal our ailing health care system we will free up resources we need to tackle these other issues. The Legislature has a steep path ahead, but the medical contingent looks forward to the challenge.

Geoff Gratwick is a rheumatologist and state senator representing District 32, encompassing Bangor and Hermon.