The Affordable Care Act, as originally passed, holds tremendous promise to decrease health care costs and increase insurance coverage rates across rural states like Maine. But federal court opinions and repeated vetoes of Medicaid expansion are putting all that into jeopardy. Already, data is pointing to widening disparities between the states embracing health reform and those that have resisted — in the numbers of uninsured, in new health care jobs and in the finances of local hospitals.
Historically, the United States has maintained the highest health spending in the world, but it still had lower life expectancies and the highest rates of infant mortality in the developed world. Health costs have sucked up 18 percent of our gross domestic product, leaching out wage gains and damaging America’s global competitiveness.
These factors drove Congress and the president to enact health care reform. Since then, despite the fact that health care utilization typically increases as the economy recovers from recession, health care cost growth has been held in check and health economists increasingly agree that this is due to the structural reforms initiated by the ACA.
And, with federal subsidies and Medicaid expansion to help cover the working poor, the number of people who are uninsured in the country is going down. These are promising trends, but die-hard reform opponents continue to work to reverse them. Every recalcitrant governor, every contentious court decision impedes health reform from realizing its full potential, despite its proven success to date.
There are two Americas. One is prosperous, long-lived and healthy. The second comprises the working poor who are short-lived, disabled early and beset by chronic illnesses that could have been prevented — diabetes, heart failure, pulmonary disease. Those in this second America are people who have a job — maybe two — but do not earn enough to make ends meet.
We make special provisions for some of the most vulnerable in this group — children, the elderly and disabled — but millions of hard-working Americans fall through the gaps. And unfortunately, the ranks of America’s working poor are increasing, not shrinking.
An American born in one of our rural counties is likely to live a shorter life than a person in Algeria or Bangladesh. Meanwhile, Americans who live in prosperous urban regions have life expectancies that rival the healthiest places in the world. This disparity exists, and it takes money. It costs our economy, through lost worker productivity and the high price of treating people in emergency rooms when they cannot afford less expensive preventive care.
As designed, health reform aimed to erase health disparities. It pumped money into making affordable health care available to Americans in poorer, more rural states like Maine. It offered good jobs and billions in economic impact while improving the quality of care to all Americans wherever they live, whatever their income. It directed money to cost-effective primary care and dedicated scholarship funds to increase the number of doctors in rural and underserved areas, like much of Maine.
The New York Times recently reported that state-level refusal to expand Medicaid combined with the recent court ruling jeopardizing subsidies to residents of states on the federal exchange threaten to undo the national reform and create a state-by-state patchwork. This would effectively maintain the two Americas. The states that declined to expand Medicaid or design state exchanges are mostly the poorer, less healthy states. Right now, Maine is on this list.
Gov. Paul LePage has vetoed majority votes to expand Medicaid five times. If we continue in this direction, 12 percent of Mainers will continue to be uninsured while 96 percent of residents in nearby Massachusetts are insured.
Politics threaten to block health reform from fulfilling its promise: to bridge the yawning gap in health and economic potential between the two Americas. Partisan politics shouldn’t block Maine from reaping the benefits of health reform — both in better health outcomes and in expanded economic opportunity.
Christy Daggett is a policy analyst at the Maine Center for Economic Policy. She is a member of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.