With many Mainers going without health insurance and an unemployment crisis throwing even more off their plans during a pandemic, a health care advocacy group is launching an effort to gather signatures for a 2022 ballot initiative directing the legislature to establish a universal, publicly-funded health care system that will cover everyone in the state.
The initiative is being put forward by Maine Health Care Action, a campaign launched by the organization Maine AllCare. A summary of the ballot measure says it would direct state lawmakers to “develop legislation to establish a system of universal health care coverage in the State,” calling for “the joint standing committee to report out a bill to the Legislature to implement, by 2024, its proposal.”
Abbie Ryder, campaign manager for Maine Health Care Action, said the group will begin gathering signatures in January for the ballot initiative. A little over 63,000 signatures are needed to put the issue before the voters. But Ryder said the goal is to gather 80,000 given that some signatures will likely be deemed invalid.
She said once the group starts collecting signatures, they have 12 months to gather the necessary amount. If they do, the initiative will be placed on the November 2022 ballot.
Ryder said having a universal health care system in Maine is important because it doesn’t appear that the federal government will pass such a system anytime soon. With a divided Congress and a president-elect who has stopped short of advocating for universal health care, Ryder said now is the time to take action in Maine.
“People are dying and they’re suffering. Sixty percent of all bankruptcies are due to medical bills,” Ryder said, adding that the continued coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the need for a universal health care system.
Ryder said it is not unprecedented for localities to move ahead of countries when it comes to universal health care. She pointed to former Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas, who passed universal health care in the province years before a nationwide system was implemented in Canada.
Maine Health Care Action also decided to act now because bills put forward by progressive lawmakers to create a universal health care system have stalled in the legislature in recent years, Ryder said.
“Every two years, we’re gonna lose health care advocates in the legislature … it’s starting over from scratch each time,” she said. “And it just didn’t seem like anything was going to come of it going that route.”
If the initiative passes, Ryder said the group expects the legislature to honor the will of the people and work in good faith to set up and implement a universal health care system.
“[The ballot measure] is really about making them know that this many Mainers really want to see this happen,” she said. “And then we’ll be applying pressure and will be going to the public hearings and will be in contact with them as much as possible.”
Gathering signatures in a pandemic
Ryder said Maine Health Care Action’s first job is to collect the signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot. She said while the pandemic will make that process trickier, the group’s plan is to open up an office soon where people can safely come in and add their signature as well as pick up petitions.
Ryder said Maine Health Care Action will also be doing pop-up signature-gathering efforts in various places around the state. She added that next year’s primary and November elections will present additional opportunities to get signatures.
To help with the effort, Ryder said the group has already raised more than $70,000 and hopes to raise around $200,000 in total. If they are successful in collecting the signatures needed, she said Maine Health Care Action hopes to raise around $400,000 to campaign in favor of the ballot measure.
Ryder said the group will focus on raising money in-state, noting that influxes of out-of-state funds usually don’t sit well with Mainers. She added that the organization will follow the fundraising model of amassing a multitude of small donations used by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — an ardent supporter of universal health care — in his presidential campaigns.
Ryder said for the month of December, an in-state donor will match every dollar donated to the group, up to $50,000. She said the money the group raises will go toward launching a large digital and email campaign to get the word out about the signature-gathering effort.
Ryder acknowledged that the initiative will likely draw significant opposition from the health insurance industry, particularly if the group gathers the necessary signatures.
However, she said since Maine Health Care Action is not pushing a specific bill, but rather a resolve directing the legislature to craft a measure, it will be more difficult for the industry to launch a campaign attacking more than the general concept of universal health care.
In 2001, a similar, non-binding referendum supporting the idea of state-level universal health care was placed on the ballot in Portland, Maine’s largest city. It attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in opposition spending from insurance companies and passed with 52 percent of the vote.
How would universal health care work in Maine?
Ryder also pointed to a 2019 study done by the Maine Center for Economic Policy (MECEP) that examined how a hypothetical universal health care system would work in the state as a document that will be helpful in countering claims by opponents.
James Myall, an economic policy analyst at MECEP — which has not endorsed any specific single-payer health care proposal — and the author of that report, said universal health care is a feasible undertaking at the state level.
“I don’t think it’s the case that it’s impossible for states to do this, at least from an economic standpoint,” he said. “It’s just whether that’s where people want to spend their financial resources and their political capital.”
The MECEP report found that about 652,000 people, including 74,000 people who are uninsured, would receive health coverage under the hypothetical state universal health care system the group devised.
Myall said while such a program would require raising taxes, most people would likely save money overall because they would receive virtually free care and wouldn’t be paying premiums to insurance companies.
He added that such a program would have the additional benefit of unburdening businesses of the cost of providing health insurance to their employees and would also prevent large numbers of people from losing health insurance when there is an economic crisis by decoupling health care from employment.
“I think the COVID situation has really demonstrated to a lot of folks, some of them painfully firsthand, the deficiencies of tying health care to employment,” Myall said.
Recent polling shows that many Mainers are also questioning the wisdom of privatized health insurance.
In an exit poll conducted during the presidential primary in March, 69 percent of voters in Mainers said they support a government plan that covers everyone over a private insurance system.
A less-scientific 2019 survey conducted by volunteers for Maine AllCare that featured respondents from all 16 counties found that 81 percent of those surveyed said they would support “a publicly funded healthcare system that covered everyone in Maine” if the federal government doesn’t pass a universal health care system.
Ryder added that five municipalities — Bangor, Blue Hill, Penobscot, Brunswick and Orono — have passed resolutions in 2020 encouraging the legislature to implement universal health care in Maine.
Those who want to get involved in Maine Health Care Action’s campaign can do so at their website.
Photo: Molly Adams, Creative Commons via flickr