National group launches universal health care drive in Augusta

By Paul Koenig
Kennebec (Maine) Journal, Sept. 4, 2013

AUGUSTA, Maine — Supporters of a government-funded universal health care system rallied on Tuesday outside the State House for the launch of a 10-day tour of eight cities considering legislation for their cause.

About 10 people gathered along Capitol Street held signs bearing messages such as “People Over Profits,” encouraging passing drivers to honk if they supported universal health care.

Representatives from Maine AllCare, the Maine chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program — a national organization advocating for single-payer health care — joined the Chicago-based Drive for Universal Healthcare at its stop at the State House.

Rep. Charlie Priest, D-Brunswick, who is co-sponsoring a bill to establish a single-payer health care system in Maine by 2017, spoke at a news conference about the proposed legislation before the demonstration outside.

The bill, L.D. 1345, eventually would transition a state exchange under the federal Affordable Care Act into a state-funded health care system, Priest said. He expects the Health and Human Services Committee to take up the bill in February or March.

The legislation’s goal is to provide affordable, quality health care to all Maine people and try to take the burden of employees’ health insurance away from employers, Priest said.

He thinks it’s possible the bill will pass in the Legislature, but it could face a veto from Gov. Paul LePage, who vetoed a bill to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act last session and opted to not take part in the state health insurance exchanges that are part of the federal law.

LePage described the Affordable Care Act as a stepping stone to a single-payer system in a November letter to the Obama administration.

However, some supporters of a single-payer system say the federal law shows why the country needs a different approach to health care because not everyone will be guaranteed insurance under it.

Priest said he thinks the Affordable Care Act will be expensive, and people in the middle class who don’t qualify for the subsidies to buy insurance on the exchanges will find costs increasing.

He also said congressional Republicans’ repeated attempts to repeal the law increase its uncertainty.

The hope with starting a universal health care system in the state is that federal government eventually will adopt a national system if enough states show their support for it, Priest said, calling such a development similar to what happened in Canada.

Fred Horch, a member of Maine AllCare, said it’s not an ideal course, but it may be the only realistic way to make universal health care a reality in the United States.

Horch, the former owner of a sustainable supply store in Brunswick, said he doesn’t think health insurance should be tied to employment status. If people with health insurance through their employers lose their jobs, they may end up uninsured when they’re most vulnerable, Horch said.

Health insurance also adds a burden on small-business owners, he said.

Horch, who didn’t pay for health insurance for his employees at F.W. Horch Sustainable Goods & Supplies, said he sometimes struggled to hire people because some were looking for a job that provided it. By not offering insurance, his store was at a disadvantage compared to large retail chains that could afford it, Horch said.

“It’s making it so hard for our small businesses to stay in business,” he said.

Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock, a small-business owner himself, said he agrees that health insurance shouldn’t be tied to employment and thinks it’s one reason for rising health care costs.

Even so, he said he doesn’t think a single-payer system is the answer. Instead, Malaby, a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, said he wants to see greater competition among insurance companies and more openness about pricing in the medical industry to allow people to shop around for medical care.

Another reason Malaby said he’s against single-payer health care is that people wouldn’t have “skin in the game” if the government was footing the bill.

“Then they don’t shop for a good value for prices, and they don’t always make decisions based on it,” Malaby said.

He also said he sees health care as a personal responsibility, not a human right. He said people can help ensure they stay healthy through a healthy diet, exercise and good lifestyle choices.

“I’m not of the mind that the government should be paying,” Malaby said. “When other people pay, you don’t care as much about how much you spend.”



Single-payer health care supporters kick-off nationwide drive

By A.J. Higgins
Maine Public Broadcasting Network, Sept. 3, 2013

AUGUSTA, Maine -- Supporters of a single payer national health care system kicked off an eight-city tour in Augusta today. Members of the Drive for Universal Healthcare organization also expressed support for a bill that will be taken up next year at the State House that would establish a single payer system in Maine modeled after a similar program in Vermont. Both plans face opposition from critics who say Maine can't afford universal health care.

Even Sue Saltmarsh, the founder of the Drive for Universal Healthcare organization, admits that promoting a group with the acronym of D-U-H 'spell out the letters' may not evoke admiration and respect 'does raise some eyebrows and cause a few snickers?'. But then again, the Chicago resident also sees its value.

"It's sort of a universal word that people understand for universal healthcare," Saltmarsh said. Does America need a new healthcare system? Duuh-uhh."

During a State House press conference, Saltmarsh recounted her own personal healthcare crisis that left her $30,000 dollars in debt. Realizing that a national health care plan similar to the government sponsored program in Canada is a difficult sell in Washington, Saltmarsh says she now wants to build new support at the local level.

"I can't change the world, but I'm determined to change all the towns I'm going to and I'm hoping that along the way, people will get in their cars and drive for an hour or two, go home and talk about it to their neighbors and get encouraged and energized to be a part of the movement actively," Saltmarsh said.

Saltmarsh is being supported in her universal health care effort by Maine AllCare spokesman, Fred Horch, of Brunswick. A former businessman, Horch says the essential problem with the American healthcare system is that it is TIED to individual employment -- rather than perceived as a business expense that should be underwritten by the state or federal government.

"In our country -- in contrast to other developed countries, we have tied health insurance to employment status," Horch said. "This puts an enormous burden on our small business community and of course magnifies the impact of losing your job, putting enormous and unnecessary stress and strain on our peoples and family," Horch said.

That's why Horch and DUH support LD 1345, a bill to establish a single payer plan in Maine sponsored by state Rep. Charles Priest. a Brunswick Democrat. He says his bill -- which was carried over last spring to next year's legislative session -- has been revamped to resemble a more measured approach currently being undertaken in Vermont.

"It builds off the Affordable Care Act which we think needs to be implemented statewide and not federally, but it also provides for a Maine health plan which is set up with the advice of an advisory committee which helps to plan this health plan," Priest said.

"Maine simply can't afford it -- it's as simple as that," said former state Rep. Jon McKane.

Former Republican state representative -- and longtime universal health care foe -- Jon McKane of Newcastle says the costs associated with a universal plan would be prohibitively expensive for Maine to go it alone. Dan Bernier, a lobbyist for the Maine Insurance Agents Association agrees. He says there are darker consequences for those in countries with national health care plans.

When you make health care free, people will consume more of it and when people consume more of it you then need to find a way to control consumption," Bernier said. "So a government run system ultimately leads to government rationing."

Members of the Drive for Universal Healthcare organization plan to visit with supporters tomorrow in Vermont.