In December when I was sworn into office, I knew I would be learning a lot. On Wednesday night – actually Thursday morning, but let’s not quibble over such things – this session of the Maine Legislature adjourned. I learned a lot and we all worked hard for the people of Maine.
Too often, unfortunately, what happens in the Legislature mirrors what happens during our campaigns. At some point, the conversation about important issues gets drowned out by the scandal and outrage of the day. That means that, like the conversations at doors shifting from important issues to the content of mailers, no one realizes just how many bills became law during this period of divided government because everyone’s busy focusing on a handful of pieces of legislation.
Sometimes that is driven by the issue. Sometimes it is driven by the amount of citizens contacting us demanding a change. Sadly, sometimes it is driven by the amount of money that corporations and organizations spend on campaigns and lobbyists. I supported expansion of the Maine Clean Elections Act which would help curb some of the excesses in campaign spending, but that did not come to pass in a way that was meaningful.
This session I assisted my colleagues on the Appropriations Committee with parts of the budget I knew a lot about, which helped them successfully revive the Low Cost Drugs for the Elderly Program and the Medicare Savings Program, among other things. Both of these programs are important measures that patch gaps in federal law, including the oft-mentioned “donut hole” in Medicare Part D. These programs are often the only thing between our seniors staying in their homes or losing them. I hope this budget passes, because the alternative is unthinkable.
There were other bills I worked hard on. My friend and colleague Representative Henry Beck and I worked on and successfully passed legislation which requires hospitals to perform pulse oximetry tests on infants to screen for congenital heart defects. 9 in every 1,000 babies are born with these defects, which can kill someone before they ever know there’s anything wrong. This exam will cost only $4 a child – a pittance considering how many lives it will save. The reason this important legislation existed at all was because of a family in our districts that told us of their concern. That’s why hearing people’s stories is so important – that is how we can make the changes that matter.
Also based on conversations in the district was a piece of legislation of my own. I submitted a bill which would require insurance companies to provide coverage for autism services from ages 5-21. Currently, they are only required to provide these services until the age of 5, and as someone who knows children who could have benefited from further services, I knew we could do better. The Insurance and Financial Services Committee agreed and this bill has been sent for study, the next step in it becoming a law.
With these victories also come some powerful losses, one of which I shall devote a lot of words to here. I reflect particularly on the reason I ran for this office in the first place, and the cause most important to my heart: to provide more access to health care for Maine people, particularly the working poor. MaineCare expansion died in the House on Wednesday night, two votes short of the votes necessary to override the Governor’s veto. I spent a lot of time working on this bill, probably more than any other. Unfortunately, it became a victim of national politics and ideology.
We had an opportunity to accept federal dollars, which have already been appropriated, in our state to provide health care to tens of thousands of people. These were our tax dollars, and a vote to expand was a vote to keep those tax dollars in our state helping our own people. Thanks to a compromise offered by Republican Senator Roger Katz of Augusta, we should have successfully allayed the fears of those who thought the federal government wouldn’t keep their end of the bargain. The expansion directly benefited working Mainers who don’t have access to health insurance through their jobs and don’t earn enough money to afford to buy it on the individual market.
I remember a time when the Maine Republican Party believed in helping people who helped themselves, and that is exactly what MaineCare expansion would have done. Unfortunately, it would seem that adherence to rigid ideology and a desire to do political harm to leaders on my side of the aisle won out.
Time will tell whether the people of Maine will support or reject their decision at the ballot box. I will, however, say that I am grateful for those on the other side who rejected the politics of the issue and did everything in their power to help it pass.
Many of the people who would have been helped by MaineCare expansion are people I know. I’ve met them – before, during, and after my campaign.
There’s the young man who can’t get a full time job teaching, even though he is qualified, but budget cuts to schools mean there aren’t a lot of jobs teaching music anymore.
There’s my friend’s son Sean, the only American with Cystic Fibrosis to have played professional hockey. He receives MaineCare because he intentionally doesn’t work enough hours to lose it. He wants to work more, but if he loses MaineCare, he dies, without question. Expansion would have meant he could work the extra hours he desires to.
There’s Doug, who had a good job but became disabled. So his disability check is too much for him to qualify for MaineCare, but not enough to purchase both health insurance and enough heating oil to keep his home warm. Losing his health insurance will kill him, while buying less heating oil just means he’s constantly freezing in his home. This isn’t a choice anyone should need to make. Expansion would mean Doug could be both healthy and warm.
There are thousands of others in my district alone who would benefit. One day in the Senate, I started to read their names and tell a little of their stories. I felt it was important to make sure that my colleagues in the Senate knew that these are not just “one person in 70,000”; they are not statistics. They are our friends, our family members, our neighbors. They are the person who may have served your coffee to you this morning. They all have stories to tell.
I will continue the fight for MaineCare expansion. It is not a choice; it is a moral imperative. Expansion turned into a political football, but it shouldn’t have been. The conversation shouldn’t have been about whether the Democrats were winners if it passed or losers if it failed. The only winners or losers here were the people who needed access to health care.
I’m not afraid to say that as I drove home early Thursday morning, after losing the battle for MaineCare, I cried. I cried because this is what people sent me there to do, to cut through the political nonsense and get to the real issues that affect them, and access to health care was the biggest one, the one I heard more about than anything else.
I was disappointed that the citizen legislators of our state couldn’t agree that accepting federal dollars, that we’ll pay to the federal government anyway, for our neighbors to get access to healthcare – and as a result increase jobs in the health care sector – was not as important as winning the political game.
Perhaps I was naive. I never saw this as a game to be won or lost. It is a life or death struggle for many of my fellow Mainers, including those I call my friends. If that makes me naive, then I’ll accept my naivete with honor. I’d rather be real, be myself and feel the pain of this loss than be cynical and treat this issue as some game to be won. I do not know what the next step in this fight is, but I know that I will stand up for the people of my district every step of the way.
That is why I went to Augusta. I promised I would never forget – and I have not forgotten.