Published on Sunday, November 4, 2001 by the Associated Press
Insurers Attack Universal Health Care Plan in Maine
by Jerry Harkavy
PORTLAND, Maine --
A campaign to make Maine the first state with universal health care faces an important test of public opinion next week amid a TV ad blitz waged against the idea by the insurance industry.
A nonbinding resolution on Tuesday's ballot in Portland calls on the city to encourage government-run health care for everyone.
Maine already has experimented with ways to cut health care costs and expand coverage. The state forced drug discounts under threat of price controls, and it obtained a federal Medicaid waiver that allows it to raise the minimum incomes that determine eligibility for discounted drugs. Duncan Wright, a Portland psychiatrist helping to run the campaign for universal health care, suggested Maine is a good candidate to lead the way.
"We're a rural state, we're not wealthy, but we have a humane political tradition. I think we can do it. We can be the first," he said.
A study last year concluded that 165,000 Maine residents--13%--lack health insurance and that the state's percentage of uninsured adults is the highest in New England.
Saying private insurance is unfair and inefficient, reformers believe Portland can send a strong message in support of a Canadian-style single-payer system that provides comprehensive, high-quality care to everyone.
Under a single-payer plan, a public agency would collect health care premiums and pay bills for all state residents.
Advocates acknowledge that such a program would require higher taxes, mostly for higher-income residents, but say people would not pay much more than they do now for private insurance, and everyone would be covered.
Supporters of a single-payer system have traditionally directed their efforts at the federal government, but some are beginning to view the states as more receptive.
Opponents acknowledge that Maine's current system is imperfect, but they caution that scrapping it in favor of a government-run health care system would raise taxes and limit consumer choice.
"This is the first salvo in a statewide battle. If we defeat it here, it will send a clear message," said Daryn Demeritt, campaign coordinator for Citizens for Sensible Health Care Choices, whose biggest contributor is Anthem, Maine's largest health insurer.
State lawmakers rejected a proposal last year to create a $3.4-billion single-payer system administered by the state. Instead, the Legislature created a board to study the issue and submit a report by March.
The proposal's sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Paul Volenik, said the Portland referendum shows that the single-payer issue is beginning to resonate at the local level.
"Just the fact that the insurance industry is putting a lot of money into television ads shows that they're worried about this," Volenik said. "Win or lose, it's a wake-up call for the people."
Campaign finance reports filed this week with the city show that opponents raised more than $382,000 as of Oct. 25. Supporters collected less than $1,500 during the same period.
That level of spending is unusual in a place where $500,000 is enough to mount a serious congressional campaign, said Oliver Woshinsky, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine.
"It's one little city voting on an advisory referendum," he said. "This just shows you what's at stake here."
Copyright 2001 Associated Press