Universal health care wins big in Maine

On Nov. 6, citizens of Portland, Maine took advantage of an advisory referendum to approve a resolution supporting a single-payer, universal health care system. The resolution calls for the City Council to report periodically on progress toward health care for all. The vote was 52 percent versus 48 percent, a remarkable victory in view of heavy spending lavished on the campaign by resolution opponents.

The victory capped a vigorous campaign that had been waged by a broad coalition made up of the Labor Party of Maine, the Maine People’s Alliance, the AFL-CIO, the Portland City Democratic Party, the Independent Green Party and Consumers for Affordable Health Care. Duncan Wright, a referendum organizer, Labor Party member and psychiatrist, believes the experience gained by activists who took part in the campaign will benefit future organizing efforts.

Last summer the Labor Party of Maine gathered the 3,000 signatures required for the non-binding referendum to be placed on the Nov. 6 ballot. Then, in September, the Maine legislature enacted a bill establishing a system of universal health care in Maine. It provided for a Health Security Board charged with setting up financial mechanisms and the basics of an insurance package to be presented later to the state legislature, which will then have the opportunity to make universal health care a reality in Maine. The momentum derived from these victories contributed greatly to the campaign in behalf of the Portland resolution.

The opponents of the resolution were seen by voters to have shown little concern for 175,000 Maine residents – over 13 percent of the population – who have no insurance at all, for the tens of thousands who pay exorbitant premiums for skimpy insurance, and for Maine residents without jobs or affordable housing.

Prior to the vote, a blitz of TV ads, video handouts, roadside signs and so-called citizen meetings, was unleashed, paid for mainly by the insurance industry – in particular by Anthem Insurance Company of Indiana.

Anthem had purchased non-profit and publicly owned Maine Blue Cross and Blue Shield a year ago. Premium rates were jacked up right away, and the company recently announced more hikes, 32 percent for non-group policies and 20 percent for group policies.

On Oct. 29 Anthem’s Maine-based company made its first public stock offerings. CEO Harry Glasscock took in $1.9 million in 2000, and with the conversion to a stockholding company, he will become able to take home up to $4 million-plus in stock options.

In a letter to the editor of the Portland Press-Herald, Janet Houghton RN wrote, “For-profit health insurers are in the business to make money. It is hard, if not impossible, to provide good health care and, at the same time, keep shareholders and management happy.”

Howard Buckley, CEO of Mercy Hospital in Portland since l975, recently shocked a meeting of business leaders by calling for a single-payer health care system. In a Press-Herald interview prior to the referendum vote, he spoke of a “level of distrust” among all parties, a “bizarre situation” brought on by managed care and the present day impossibility of nurses being able to practice what they are taught about care for the “whole patient.” Under the present system, he said, “There are too many rascals.”

He continued: “The people we serve no longer trust payers or providers.They become discouraged by the bureaucracy that we have built around the fundamental provider-patient interaction. And finally, I feel that health care isn’t a privilege, but a right that belongs equally to everybody. In the end, I am convinced that only a single-payer system will truly change the system for the better.”