Lawmakers last convened in the House Chamber at the State House on March 17. The Maine Legislature approved coronavirus-related legislation and a budget bill. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

Gov. Janet Mills has led Maine’s response to the health crisis with compassion and clarity. Yet Maine is not immune from the seismic impacts of COVID-19. A $1.4 billion budget shortfall is estimated over the next three years, including a loss of more than $520 million this fiscal year. Maine holds the unsavory distinction of the greatest racial disparity in COVID-19 infection rates, with Black Mainers more than 20 times more likely to contract the virus than their white neighbors. A recent report shows 14,000 Mainers will be newly uninsured after tens of thousands have lost employer-provided insurance since February.

Health insurance companies are proposing raising rates for small businesses, with initial filings showing the highest requested increase for 2021 topping out at over 10 percent, following rate hikes in the double-digits last year for many plans. The Maine Health Data Organization reports that overall, the 25 most costly drugs in Maine increased in cost by nearly 11 percent last year and the cost per person increased by 27 percent. In 2018, Maine’s per-capita health expenditures were 10 percent higher than the U.S. average.

Our most recent polling shows over two-thirds of Mainers are concerned about not being able to afford health coverage, copays and deductibles. Nearly three quarters are concerned about prescription drug prices, with two out of three worried they won’t be able to afford the medicine they need. These concerns are growing with more Mainers losing coverage.

State policymakers have taken significant steps to improve health care affordability, and this moment calls for continued action to control rising costs and expand accessibility — without cutting vital access to programs. We need solutions that not only stop the spread of the virus but make sure Maine can reopen its doors and stay open. This is especially important as vulnerable Mainers return to work, caring for older Mainers and providing other essential services.

Expanded MaineCare is helping thousands access the coverage and care they need, and laws enacted last year improve affordability and access to health care in Maine’s individual and small business markets. Bipartisan support of measures to address skyrocketing prescription drug prices, including the creation of a Prescription Drug Affordability Board to help contain drug costs in public health programs, shows Maine policymakers can work together to address the problems we face. And that work must continue with urgency.

It starts with our federal lawmakers. Initial increases in federal match rates for state Medicaid programs have been helpful but are nowhere close to what is needed to help fill the gaps in state revenue. The HEROES Act passed by the House includes increased Medicaid funding to help avoid devastating health care cuts at the state level, but the Senate’s HEALS Act does not.

State policymakers have an opportunity to address rising costs with Senate President Troy Jackson’s bill, LD 2110, An Act to Lower Health Care Costs. It passed in the Maine House and Senate, but sits awaiting final action as the Legislature contemplates a special session. The bill creates an independent entity to examine and identify ways to lower health care costs. It would also provide staffing to Maine’s Prescription Drug Affordability Board, which has only met once since its creation due in part to the lack of dedicated staff.

With an ongoing pandemic and revenue losses, reining in health care costs while also ensuring access to care has never been more important. A similar effort in Massachusetts has already produced very promising results.

There are real opportunities to protect the health care gains we have made in Maine and to help those who are going without. I am more than hopeful and confident policy makers at both the federal and state level will put politics aside and work together to protect the health and well-being of the people they represent.

Ann Woloson is the executive director of Consumers for Affordable Health Care.