The Maine State House in Augusta. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Amy Fried is chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views are her own and do not represent those of any group with which she is affiliated.

With health care a key issue of the 2020 elections, American voters picked Joe Biden for president. He pledged to build on Obamacare and, among other things, adopt a public option.

But, while two Georgia U.S. Senate seats have yet to be decided, Republican strength in the third of the country that had Senate races this year will stymie bold action. If Mitch McConnell remains majority leader, he’s already indicated he’ll limit Biden’s nominations and legislation.

Democrats winning control of the Senate would stop the worst of this gridlock, but the road to substantial change probably will be stalled. McConnell said early in the Obama presidency that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

And so our state has to act.

Yes, Maine faces really tough circumstances, with a growing pandemic and an attendant economic crisis.

And, yes, money will probably be tight. Trump has removed himself from presidential duties, the Senate hasn’t passed a relief bill and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s negotiations with Treasury Secretary Mnunchin have stalled.

Biden will certainly try to pass a robust stimulus package. But whatever happens in Washington, D.C., Mainers want and need action.

Data from West Health and Maine Consumers for Affordable Health Care are startling. On the positive side, Mainers see Medicare and Medicaid quite favorably — 80 percent and 68 percent, respectively.

But many Maine people have real needs that aren’t being met. This study shows that health care costs are going up for many, with nearly 220,000 saying they couldn’t pay for a needed prescription. Close to that number didn’t seek treatment for a medical problem due to cost. More than 100,000 have a friend or family member who passed away because they couldn’t afford treatment.

A lot of people get health insurance through their workplaces, but unemployment spiked during the pandemic. And, as the West Health/MCAHC research details, many Mainers — it estimates 66,000 — lost coverage during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, health insurers are making huge profits during the pandemic — but that doesn’t mean that local providers are doing alright. As the New York Times reported, “The companies’ staggering pandemic profits stand in stark contrast to the scores of small medical practices and rural hospitals that are struggling to stay open.”

One thing Maine legislators could do would be to tax insurers and use those funds to help people pay for coverage. A federal tax on insurers is due to expire next year and some states have raised their taxes to match the amount that insurers would have paid if that continued. The ACA Times reports that New Jersey’s tax “is estimated to bring in over $224 million dollars during the 2021 tax year.” The money will go to subsidizing insurance premiums for low- and middle-income people.

Senate President Troy Jackson, House Speaker Sara Gideon and Gov. Janet Mills have been champions for making health care and prescription drugs more affordable but, due to the pandemic, some legislation didn’t make it over the finish line. One is LD 2110, which would have established a Health Care Affordability Board.

This may sound bureaucratic, but a similar body, the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission, has done great work in gathering information to really understand gaps and problems and then figuring out how to focus funds and improve health care. Massachusetts has done a lot of other things right. In 2019, only 3.6 percent of their nonelderly population lacked coverage, compared with 10.2 percent in Maine and 10.9 percent nationally.

So much is going on — planning holidays when experts tell us we should practice social distancing, many kids learning at home, trying to work at home or, less safely, in the community. Too many are struggling to pay their rent or mortgage and put food on the table.

And, on top of that, a lot of people can’t afford medical care.

Despite today’s hard times, it is time for Maine to act again on health care.

Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and...