Health care dominates Maine’s legislative session


When the ebook closes on the 129th Maine Legislature, it could be remembered because the well being care session.

Consider what already has handed or is headed for passage:

A invoice that tightens up childhood vaccination necessities by ending most exemptions.

An act to require abortion protection for Medicaid recipients and one other to permit nurse practitioners to carry out abortions.

A invoice to make sure varied affected person protections underneath the federal Affordable Care Act which have been liable to disappearing through the Trump administration.

Measures to extend entry to lower-cost prescribed drugs and to make pricing of prescriptions extra clear.

On high of that, funds priorities by Gov. Janet Mills and majority Democrats within the Legislature are closely weighted towards well being care. These embody extra money for therapy choices to fight the opioid disaster; full implementation of Medicaid growth, which stalled underneath Mills’ predecessor, Gov. Paul LePage; and extra funding for extra caseworkers in little one protecting companies.

Collectively, the measures – lots of which might have been useless on arrival two years in the past – have shifted Maine in a decidedly progressive course. They additionally mirror a nationwide effort by Democrats to ship on a problem that resonates with their base of assist.

“We anticipated a lot of interest in health care issues with the new administration and the new Legislature,” stated Andrew MacLean, interim CEO of the Maine Medical Association. “I think we all know that, around the country in this cycle, Democrats felt like they ran on health care and won on health care, so this isn’t a surprise.”

The session has not been with out partisan fights. Republicans have objected to necessary vaccines and to increasing entry to ladies’s reproductive rights. They even have expressed repeated issues about elevated spending, whilst Mills has resisted calls from some in her social gathering to contemplate new taxes.

“The narrative that Republicans don’t care about health care is false,” stated Rep. Kathleen Dillingham of Oxford, the House Republican chief. “But we’re interested in making sure things are done in a fiscally responsible manner.”

Rep. Beth O’Connor of Berwick, the lead Republican on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, stated she believes Democrats have been pushing excessive insurance policies on well being care which can be out of step with Maine folks.

But as a result of Democrats maintain such huge benefits in each the House and Senate, and since the governor is a Democrat, they’ve been capable of accomplish most of what they need.

“Anytime you’re out knocking on doors, this is what people are talking about,” stated Sen. Geoff Gratwick, D-Bangor, who co-chairs the Health and Human Services Committee. “They want to know: How can I access whatever health care services I need and how can we make them more affordable?”

Some thorny debates – together with over proposals to create a single-payer well being care system – have been carried over to the subsequent session. Others, similar to whether or not to permit physician-assisted suicide, could fail to achieve sufficient assist. But Gratwick stated his social gathering must be happy with its accomplishments.

“There has been a distinct shift,” he stated. “And we have more to do.”

‘DRAMATIC SHIFT’ IN MEDICAID STANCE

On her first day in workplace, earlier than any payments went up for debate, Mills signed an government order to start increasing Medicaid instantly.

Maine voters, after seeing quite a few legislative makes an attempt to increase authorities well being care for low-income Mainers fail, handed a referendum in 2017, however LePage refused to implement growth, even when instructed by the federal authorities to take action.

Robyn Merrill, government director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, which advocates for low-income Mainers, stated that call set a transparent tone.

“We keep having conversations with people who are accessing health care for the first time, and there is a relief in their voices,” she stated. “There is no question it’s been a dramatic shift.”

Similarly, Democratic leaders made their first invoice a well being care-related measure: An Act to Protect Health Care Coverage for Maine Families.

That invoice ensured that sufferers with pre-existing situations can’t be denied protection. It additionally permits youngsters to stay on a mum or dad’s medical health insurance plan to the age of 26 and prohibits any lifetime limits on protection, provisions that are also a part of the federal legislation.

Other strikes by the Mills administration have made clear that well being care is her high precedence.

Her first cupboard appointee was Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, who labored on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and likewise for a few years was a coverage director within the Obama White House.

Mills additionally created a brand new place – director of opioid response – and appointed longtime Maine Medical Association vice chairman Gordon Smith to coordinate efforts throughout all state businesses to battle the lethal epidemic that has threatened a complete technology.

In an announcement final week, the Democratic governor stated she’ll proceed pushing efforts to enhance the lives of Mainers.

“From more affordable, accessible health care to cheaper prescription drugs to tackling the opioid epidemic, the people of Maine sent a clear message last November that they wanted change. Now we are working to deliver it,” she stated. “My administration has prioritized health care and working closely and collaboratively with the Legislature as we have been, we will continue to look for ways to improve lives by improving health care.”

Republicans, although, have forged Democratic priorities in fiscal phrases. Many really feel Medicaid growth will stretch the funds for years to return, undoing progress made by LePage to scale back well being care spending. They even have questioned different spending will increase.

But Mills has resisted proposing any tax will increase, a minimum of through the first two years of her time period. The elevated spending is feasible due to a robust financial system that’s producing extra income.

O’Connor stated it’s not simply the spending, but additionally who’s benefiting. She accused Democrats of prioritizing “able-bodied adults and non-citizens” over the “truly vulnerable.” She stated there may be nonetheless a ready record for companies for adults with developmental disabilities, an issue that dates again to the LePage administration.

Dillingham stated Republicans have by and enormous supported further spending on the opioid disaster and on little one safety however want that they had a stronger voice on the desk.

“I’ve tried to approach it by being respectful and focusing on policy, but we’re clearly not on the same page with some of these things,” she stated.

REPUBLICANS FEEL SHUT OUT

The legislative session began slowly, as most periods do, however as debate has intensified, well being care has taken middle stage.

On the vaccination invoice, a whole bunch of individuals turned out for the general public listening to and the committee acquired greater than 1,000 items of testimony. The abortion payments drew massive crowds as properly.

At a time when a number of different states have handed legal guidelines to limit abortions, the truth that Maine has improved entry is noteworthy.

Again, that might not have been attainable at any level since 2010, when LePage was elected and Republicans managed the Legislature.

Similarly, the narrowly-passed invoice to make sure youngsters who attend public faculties have up-to-date vaccinations is probably going not one thing that might have handed in earlier Legislatures, a lot much less survived an almost-certain veto by LePage.

O’Connor and Dillingham stated each are examples of “extreme left” insurance policies that Democrats will come to remorse.

Dillingham, who has a much less combative method than earlier Republican leaders, stated she has tried to interact with majority Democrats however hasn’t seen a lot willingness to compromise.

There have been some exceptions. Just final week, the insurance coverage committee unanimously handed a invoice that might require insurers to cowl psychological well being and substance use dysfunction therapy in the identical method as different medical situations. The invoice additionally bans practices that prohibit prescription drug protection for substance use dysfunction.

MacLean, talking for the hospital affiliation, stated his members have been supportive of many of the measures which have handed.

“We always have a fair amount of health care legislation every session given the portion of the economy it occupies,” he stated. “What’s interesting right now is, from a budget standpoint, we’re not talking about cuts to services.”

LePage, with assist from legislative Republicans, prioritized decreasing spending in well being care, particularly social companies.

Supporters praised his fiscal stewardship. Critics argued the cuts have been draconian and had led to greater issues.

Gratwick, the Bangor Democratic lawmaker, stated he sees this legislative session and the subsequent as alternatives to contemplate long-term investments.

He acknowledged that spending in well being care has elevated to an unsustainable degree however stated determining a method to decrease the precise price of well being care must be the aim, not reducing companies.

But Gratwick stated serving as co-chair of the Health and Human Services Committee has given him a window into how the state has failed susceptible populations.

“We have under-funded, and I think there is bipartisan guilt because it started during the Baldacci administration and worsened under the LePage administration,” he stated.

One proposal that’s nonetheless being debated is a invoice that might add a complete dental profit – together with preventive, diagnostic and restorative care – for greater than 100,000 grownup Mainers who’ve Medicaid. Maine would be a part of 33 states which have such a profit.

The dental invoice may very well be doomed by its price, which is estimated at $7 million to $19 million a 12 months. But it gives a great instance of how prioritizing prevention can require excessive spending up entrance whereas saving cash in the long run.

Maine now provides routine dental care for kids on Medicaid, however adults are solely lined for emergency care, similar to tooth extractions. Merrill, at Maine Equal Justice Partners, says it makes extra sense to supply adults preventive care reasonably that emergency tooth extractions.

“I think there is more energy around being more thoughtful and looking out further when it comes to health care,” Merrill stated of the present Legislature’s method to well being care points.

Many of these discussions will spill over into the subsequent session, the place Democrats will nonetheless get to set the agenda.

O’Connor stated Republicans will proceed pushing for their very own values.

“We’re not trying to be obstructionist,” she stated. “I’ll always vote for good policy.”

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