Health of rural hospitals is on the ballot

When you really need a hospital, you’re grateful its specialized equipment and medical professionals are there.

Everyone in my family has had to go to a Bangor hospital — after a mishap on a sledding hill, a fainting spell at a track meet, intense abdominal pain, or a near-fatal pulmonary embolism.

For people in rural areas, the community hospital is essential.

Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, like other Maine hospitals, will be impacted by voter choices on Nov. 6. Gabor Degre | BDN

If it closes some departments or closes altogether, people would have to travel a lot farther. Whether a joyous situation like giving birth, or a scary one like a stroke or suicide attempt, it matters when one can get care.

Maine’s rural hospitals face financial stress and, as Maine voters go to the polls, the health of rural hospitals is on the ballot.

Just as people need hospitals, those hospitals are dependent on people who live in small towns and out in the country. If they can’t afford health coverage, the hospital loses money and administrators have to make tough decisions.

To solve this, we must first reject a politics of negativity and distraction.

In both Maine and the United States, some politicians have promoted fear of and hate toward people who moved to our land or are seeking asylum or refugee status here.

A would-be bomber from Florida and a murderer in Pittsburgh heard those messages and acted, with deadly effect.

Recently, some pundits and politicians gave voice to a conspiracy theory that prominent Americans, including George Soros, were behind a caravan of refugees and wanted to hurt our fellow countrymen. This is barely coded anti-Semitism.

The killer of 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of LIfe synagogue targeted Jews because we follow the Torah’s injunction to welcome the stranger and so support refugees, The toxic combination of anti-Semitism and xenophobia unfortunately can be seen in Maine as well.

Of course, there are legitimate issues with health care, immigration, and other matters that aren’t based in malevolence.

And so a second step to addressing those concerns is to take facts seriously over spin. Yet we have been awash in spin so strong that it barely resembles reality.

For instance, the Affordable Care Act guarantees people with preexisting conditions with coverage at the same rate as everyone else. Rep. Bruce Poliquin voted to do away with that guarantee but says he supports coverage for preexisting conditions.

With that same vote, Poliquin also decreased hospitals’ funding.

According to data cited by the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Poliquin voted for cutting $117 billion from the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund. The cut undermined Medicare’s solvency as it gave a tax cut to the rich, repealing a 0.9 percent surtax on individuals making over $200,000 and couples making $250,000 that supported the trust fund. Other, larger tax cuts for wealthy people were also included.

Poliquin voted for coverage cuts in the same bill, which Sen. Susan Collins said “would affect our rural hospitals and nursing homes, and they would have a very difficult time even staying in existence.” His top opponent this year, Democrat Jared Golden, opposes Poliquin’s votes and supports Medicaid expansion. Golden also sponsored successful legislation focusing on health care issues affecting veterans and others, doing so with bipartisan support.

One of the two viable candidates in Maine’s governor’s race, Democrat Janet Mills, has been a stalwart supporter of Medicaid expansion, and points out that hospitals are the biggest employer in most Maine counties. Health researchers agree with Mills, concluding that Medicaid expansion keeps rural hospitals healthy and finding that closing these hospitals often has as big an economic impact as closing a manufacturing facility. Republican Shawn Moody opposed expansion during the primary and his position has been unclear since then.

Sen. Angus King supports policies that help Maine hospitals stay open, as he voted against ACA repeal, while his Republican opponent Eric Brakey, who opposed Medicaid expansion, does not.

And so this year the preservation of Maine’s rural hospitals depends on who wins state legislative seats, the governorship and seats in the U.S. House and Senate. Vote and volunteer like hospitals’ health — and your community’s — hang in the balance.


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.