A comprehensive compromise has been laid out that will both repay the nearly $500 million owed to our hospitals as well as help prevent further cost-drivers from burdening our hospital resources in the future.
No one questions the idea that we must pay our bills. The governor is absolutely right. It’s absurd that any Legislature could tout to have balanced the budget while the state has existing bills yet to be paid. A bill is being finalized that will pay the hospitals, but will also aim to do something to ensure we don’t end up in a similar financial pickle down the road; covering low-income Mainers via accepting federal health care dollars.
Too many Mainers are one heart attack or broken bone away from financial ruin and, in fact, just last session thousands of Mainers were removed from their coverage due to budget cuts. By accepting federal dollars set aside for our state under the Affordable Care Act, we can offer health insurance to 69,500 working Mainers. Accepting these federal funds is the morally right thing to do because it will give more Maine families the care they need, when they need it, without facing crushing medical bills or siphoning off precious emergency resources.
Providing access to needed care will help us avoid spending millions of dollars on emergency room visits that could have been prevented with timely care. This is commonly referred to as charity care, which drives up costs for taxpayers, insurers and hospitals. In 2011 alone, Maine hospitals spent more than $200 million on charity care. These added costs to our hospitals can be avoided by accepting federal dollars and providing needed treatment to these frequent emergency room visitors.
In the short term, these federal dollars would represent a $250 million boost to our economy and create more than 3,100 jobs with benefits. Critics have cited that Maine taxpayers will have to foot the bill for this coverage expansion. The federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost to cover all newly eligible people to receive health insurance for the first three years. In subsequent years, the federal government’s share would slowly decline to a minimum of 90 percent. We retain the right to opt out at any time, so if after the three-year period is up and it’s not as effective as we would like, we can say no-go on furthering the program.
Maine will save $690 million to cover nearly 70,000 Maine people over the course of a decade, and that is according to estimates from the nonpartisan Kaiser Foundation and the conservative Heritage Foundation.
We have a narrow window to accept these dollars and provide care to thousands of Mainers in need, which is why the need to tie this to the hospital repayment plan is so critical. While initially I was concerned about lumping them together, it makes sense to ensure both get accomplished in a timely fashion. Why not try and pay our bills and limit future debt/costs at the same time? Seems like a common sense approach to me.
In the next few weeks the Senate and the House are poised to pass this proposal and send it to the governor for his John Hancock. If there was one thing I learned while interning for U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, it would be that in the political arena, compromise shouldn’t be a dirty word.
Justin Chenette is the state representative for District 134 in Saco. You can get legislative updates about the work of the 126th Legislature at www.justinchenette.com, Facebook.com/justinforsaco, and Twitter.com/justinchenette.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco