One in 4 Americans with insurance find it hard to cover medical costs, including prescription medications Credit: Rich Pedroncelli | AP

When I walk into a hospital, I can’t help but think of my father. The long hallways, the bright lights, the people always coming and going. My dad was a pediatrician and spent countless hours visiting his patients. As the youngest of four, while my older sisters were spending their weekend’s off at various activities, I was sitting outside hospital rooms, awaiting the vanilla pudding I was promised for my good behavior.

And whether it was on those Saturday mornings with my dad as he did rounds or as I grew older, working at his office, I saw firsthand how he gently met the needs of sick children while patiently addressing the concerns of their nervous parents. I saw his calm manner while reassuring his patients that, “yes, it was going to be OK,” and the obvious pain he felt in those times that it wasn’t.

My mom was also a medical professional, a nurse who later became a mental health clinical specialist. She loved her work and it showed in her commitment to mental health awareness and her deep empathy for both the patients and the nurses she managed.

That’s just simply what they did. They put their patients first.

And as they headed toward retirement, I know they watched with great frustration as the health care system began pushing patients and doctors toward questions of “in-network” versus “out,” instead of well versus sick. My dad bristled at the idea that the number of patients you see per day should ever compete with the basic concept of excellent medical care and a good and kind bedside manner.

The health care system we find ourselves in today is at times unrecognizable to both my parents. It is on their behalf, and on behalf of the thousands of Mainers who have to face the complex web of our current system, that legislative Democrats are fighting to change that.

This week, I stood side by side with Senate President Troy Jackson, patients, providers and legislative Democrats to put forward our Patients First health care package: Four bills that seek to fix some of the most common and troublesome health care problems facing Mainers today.

First, according to recent data, Maine ranks 14th in health care spending per capita, well above the national average. One in 4 Americans with health insurance find it difficult to afford their copays or their prescription medication, and 1 in 7 Maine adults have forgone care due to cost.

Second, surprise and unexpected medical bills have become increasingly common, with nearly 70 percent of Americans saying they are worried about unexpected medical bills. In fact, a recent study showed that as many as 1 in 5 in-patient emergency department cases may lead to surprise bills. That’s simply not right.

Approximately 142,000 Mainers are living with diabetes today, and diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in Maine. The average cost of insulin for treating type 1 diabetes in the United States nearly doubled over a five-year period, rising from $2,864 in 2012 to $5,705 per person, per year in 2016.

The Patients First health care package is a direct response to these problems.

It gives Mainers an advocate on their side when they go up against big insurance companies. It clamps down on abusive billing practices that nickel and dime Maine families at some of the worst times of their lives. And it limits the amount some consumers can be charged for life-saving insulin.

As state lawmakers, we are limited by federal law when it comes to the markets we can regulate, and that’s challenging and frustrating, on so many levels. But in the absence of continued inaction on the federal level, we are addressing and fixing our broken health care system in every way we can here in Maine.

Because when we have the ability to do some good for the people in our state, we will. And we know that these types of state-level changes can inspire bigger structural changes in markets across the country. Just like we were on prescription drug reform, Maine has the opportunity to be a leader again.

Not a single Mainer should be rationing medication or avoiding a trip to the doctor because we aren’t sure what it will end up costing. Every single one of us deserves access to quality, affordable health care. Everyone deserves the care that my parents gave. Every patient deserves to be put first.

Sara Gideon is the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.