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As Health Bill Goes to Senate, Maine Groups Hope for Fixes

Patty Wight
Maine Public
Nicole Clegg (from left), Emily Brostek, Chellie Pingree, Ann Woloson and Gordon Smith at a Friday press conference.

A day after House Republicans passed their health care overhaul bill, the spotlight is now on the U.S. Senate. Advocacy groups for Maine physicians, hospitals and consumers say the American Health Care Act would have disastrous consequences for patients and are looking to the Senate to fix it.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District, who opposed the bill, says advocacy groups aren’t the only ones looking to the Senate to improve the AHCA. She says some House Republicans are as well.

“I talked to many of my colleagues individually who said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about this. It’s not that good of a plan, but the Senate will fix it,’” she says.

To many opponents, “fixing it” means scrapping the whole bill altogether. At a press conference in her Portland office Friday, Pingree was joined by advocacy groups Consumers for Affordable Health Care and Maine Equal Justice Partners, as well as Planned Parenthood and the Maine Medical Association.

MMA’s Gordon Smith says the Republican bill creates more losers than winners.

“This bill, the losers are the poor, those who are sick, those who are old, and women. And in the state of Maine, we have a lot of all four,” he says.

Physicians and hospitals also lose, he says, because fewer people will have insurance coverage.

Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine’s 2nd District sees it differently. On a conference call with reporters Thursday, he said he supports the AHCA because it will improve access to health care in rural Maine.

“Hundreds of Maine families in our Congressional District, which I represent, have asked me to help make sure they have access to health insurance at a cost they can afford, and that they will have coverage for pre-existing health conditions,” he said.

Poliquin also said the bill would only affect the 7 percent of Mainers who purchase insurance on the individual market. But Smith and others dispute his claims.

“This bill is not about 7 percent of people in Maine. It’s about every single Mainer. Because every single one of us, whether we have insurance or not, we’re gonna pay for health care. And all of our costs will go up, because people will wait too long to get care, they won’t get good primary care, but they’re still going to show up in the hospital. And that cost is all going to be shifted onto the rest of us,” he says.

Critics say the American Health Care Act eliminates many of the protections under Obamacare that made insurance affordable.

The Republican bill would allow insurance companies to charge older consumers five times as much as younger consumers. Insurance companies could also charge consumers based on their health status. Tax credits would be based on age instead of income. The 10 essential health benefits insurance companies are required to cover would be optional.

And the AHCA cuts Medicaid by converting it into a per capita cap, or block grant program.

“And what that means for Maine is that $1 billion will be lost for our state,” over the next 10 years, says Ann Woloson of Maine Equal Justice Partners.

Woloson says it would affect the 50,000 seniors, 65,000 people with disabilities, and 100,000 children on MaineCare.

The AHCA also blocks federal Medicaid reimbursements to Planned Parenthood, which covers preventive care. Federal money is not used to pay for abortions except in extreme circumstances. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England’s Nicole Clegg calls the AHCA the worst bill for women’s health in a generation.

“We are gravely concerned about the fact this is moving forward to the Senate. And we look to Maine’s senators to take a leading role in fixing what’s wrong and standing up for Planned Parenthood,” she says.

In terms of fixing, those at the press conference, including Smith, couldn’t identify a single aspect of the AHCA to retain.

“This bill is good for young, healthy, and wealthy individuals. It’s bad for the very people that government is supposed to be helping. And a lot of those people are in rural Maine,” he says.

As for a new policy that would improve health care, Woloson says the Senate should eliminate the provision in Medicare that blocks the U.S. from negotiating drug prices.

“If we got rid of that clause, and enabled the United States to negotiate on behalf of our elderly people to bring down the cost of drugs, that would save us billions of dollars,” she says.

Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine has criticized the AHCA, calling it a “shift and shaft” that will cost Maine people their health insurance. Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine says she has more questions than answers about whether the bill will make health care more affordable and increase access to quality care.