Medicaid expansion proponents rally outside the State House prior to former Gov. Paul LePage's State of the State address on Feb. 13, 2018, in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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Maine had the largest drop in the percentage of people without health insurance in the country over the past two years. Having more people insured and able to access health care is good for their health, and for the economy of the state.

The drop in uninsured Mainers is due in part to the expansion of Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income Americans, which is called MaineCare here.

Voters strongly approved the expansion of Medicaid in 2017. That came after then-Gov. Paul LePage vetoed legislation to expand eligibility for Medicaid, which was approved by Democratic and Republican lawmakers, several times. Even after voters approved the referendum to extend the government insurance program to more Mainers, LePage still refused to implement it.

Gov. Janet Mills did so on her first day in office in January 2019. Nearly 100,000 people have gained access to health insurance since then. Most of those helped by Medicaid expansion were working but did not previously have access to an affordable insurance plan.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Maine’s uninsured rate dropped from 8 percent in 2019 to 5.7 percent in 2021. This was the largest percentage decline among all states in the nation.

Maine now ranks 14th among all 50 states for the percentage of uninsured residents, down from 26th two years earlier.

Maine saw gains in both public and private health insurance, with a 1.1 point rise in the percentage of Mainers with private insurance.

There are many benefits to having more people covered by health insurance. For one, those who are newly covered can now better afford to go to a medical provider. That means they can get preventative care and care for chronic conditions before they worsen. This includes mental health care and care for substance use disorder. This improves their lives and lowers costs for others.

Beyond the individual benefits, having more people covered by insurance helps hospitals reduce uncompensated care and maintain their workforce. Maine hospitals saw their uncompensated care decrease by $84 million between 2018 and 2020, according to the governor’s office.

“This is a big win for Maine people, hospitals and other providers of care, and the Maine economy,” Steve Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association, said of the Census Bureau data and Medicaid expansion, which is primarily funded by the federal government.

Medicaid expansion has also reduced costs for those who were already insured and led to economic and job growth.

“Over the last two years, despite the challenges of the pandemic, Maine outperformed every other state in improving health coverage,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a press release earlier this week. “Now more Maine people can see a doctor, afford medications, and receive preventive care, keeping families and our economy both healthy.”

The governor also pointed to other steps the state has taken to increase the accessibility of health insurance and health care, including codifying protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions into state law and reducing health insurance costs for small businesses.

There is still work to be done. Maine lags other New England states for the rate of insured people; more than 77,000 people in Maine still lack health insurance.

Still, the Census Bureau data show that Medicaid expansion, which was supported by the majority of Maine people and Maine lawmakers, has made a significant difference in the state.

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...