Friday, December 13, 2013
On Labor Day, we celebrate the people who work, who get up every day, play by the rules and try to build a better life for their families.
Despite working one or even two jobs, too many of Maine's hardworking individuals and families lack access to even basic health care.
When an illness or injury occurs, these individuals continue to work until the pain becomes unbearable and the illness or injury more acute. Ultimately, they are forced to take time off from work and seek expensive care at their local emergency room.
It doesn't have to be this way.
Maine has an incredible opportunity to improve the lives of thousands of people, most of whom are working but can't afford to purchase private health insurance.
This year, our state had a heated debate about extending access to health care by accepting funds set aside by the federal government to insure nearly 70,000 Mainers.
Despite strong bipartisan support for expansion, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bill that would have helped workers in our state live happier, healthier and more productive lives. It's not too late to make that happen.
Last year, a coalition formed to advocate for accepting these federal funds to extend health insurance coverage.
The group is called Cover Maine Now! and includes nearly 90 organizations that are still hard at work to make sure that Maine doesn't miss this incredible opportunity.
The sooner Maine accepts the federal funds, the longer it will benefit from the influx of federal dollars.
The federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost of covering all newly eligible individuals beginning in 2014 through 2016. The federal share will decline slowly until it reaches 90 percent by 2020.
As we all enjoy the holiday weekend and the traditional end of summer, it's important to know that extending access to health care would help people who have some of the most difficult, back-breaking jobs in our state.
About 128,000 Mainers lack health insurance. Of those, many are employed. Of the 69,500 who would gain access to affordable health care through the expansion, a majority are employed. They work in a broad range of industries, including retail sales, food, health care, education, child care, farming, fishing and logging.
They take care of our children in daycare and our senior citizens when they need extra help in order to stay in their homes. They are the men and women who grow our food, catch our fish and support our forest products industry.
They are the cashiers at the stores where we shop, the waiters who bring us our lunch and the cooks who prepare it.
They are our neighbors who hang dry wall or pave our streets or work in the warehouse on the outskirts of town.
They are the backbone of Maine. They are ones who would benefit directly from the extended access to health insurance.
Extending health insurance to more Maine people, however, also would create new jobs for some of the nearly 49,000 unemployed Mainers.
Accepting federal dollars to expand access to health insurance would create an estimated 3,100 jobs in the state and inject more than $350 million into the economy.
And these federal funds would help rural areas, which were hit particularly hard by the Great Recession. For example, more than 11 percent of adults under the age of 65 in Somerset County would be eligible for coverage.
Expanding access to health care also helps those families that already have insurance. By reducing bad debt and charity care, and by making sure that people who are sick or hurt get timely care, extending health insurance to those who can't otherwise afford it would slow the growth of health care spending across the board.
Hospitals would have less bad debt and charity care, and the cost of private insurance premiums would go down.
States around the country have seen their health insurance rates drop as they have implemented the Affordable Care Act and its expansion of access to health care.
Maine is still struggling to recover from the recent recession.
Too many people want work but can't find it, and thousands more are working but are only one injury or illness away from catastrophe.
By putting the federal dollars already set aside for Maine to work, we have an opportunity to change that and speed our state's recovery, improve lives and create a healthier workforce.
States around the country, including those with conservative governors such as Ohio, New Jersey and Arizona, have recognized the opportunity they have to help working families become more secure.
Extending access to affordable health insurance will create jobs, boost Maine's economy, and make the lives of thousands of hardworking Mainers better and more secure. Maine cannot afford to say no.
Sara Gagné-Holmes is the executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit legal aid organization that works to find solutions to poverty.