Portland forum to examine health-care access

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PORTLAND — As thousands of residents stand to lose health-care coverage if scheduled cuts in the state’s Medicaid program take effect Friday, a nonprofit group is trying to show how Maine could make health care available to everyone.

The group, Maine AllCare, is hosting an educational forum, “What If Everyone Had Health Care in Maine?” on Sunday, March 3. The event will also include a screening of a 2012 documentary film, “The Healthcare Movie,” narrated by actor Kiefer Sutherland.

The movie contrasts the U.S. health-care system, with its patchwork of public and private services, and Canada’s government-sponsored system, which guarantees care by hospitals, doctors and dentists for every citizen.

Sutherland is the grandson of Tommy Douglas, a former premier of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, who pioneered the country’s efforts to create a universal health-care system in the 1960s.

Critics of U.S. health care often point to Canada as an example of how care can be provided more effectively and more economically.

Research has shown that the United States spends more per capita on health care than any country in the world, while measurements of public health – such as average life expectancy and infant mortality rates – are consistently worse in the United States than in Canada and other developed countries.

“Health care is a human right, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be in this country,” Philip Caper, a founder of Maine AllCare who will be moderating Sunday’s discussion, said last week.

Caper is a Brooklin physician who once served as a health-care staffer to former U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and who writes a column about health care for the Bangor Daily News.

Lack of health-care access was also the focus of a recent column in The Forecaster, and was addressed in the cover story of last week’s Time magazine.

The problem continues despite the fact that the Medicaid and Medicare programs already provide health coverage for more than 100 million Americans. The 2010 federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – nicknamed Obamacare – is expanding coverage to millions more.

But those efforts don’t go far enough, according to Caper and other critics.

In fact, an estimated 26 million Americans will remain without health insurance in 2016, even after most Obamacare provisions are implemented, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

And in Maine, more than 133,000 people are uninsured today, according to Maine AllCare.

The problem, Caper believes, is that the nation’s health care is driven not by the public good, but by the bottom line.

“Health-care costs are literally out of control, and there’s no near-term prospect that they will be controlled, because the United States is the only wealthy country in the world without a universal, government-managed health-care system,” he said.

“(Health-care) systems in other countries cover everybody, they get better results than we do, they’re better-liked by the public – and, by the way, they cost on average about half what the U.S. pays,” he said.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit was filed last week against the federal Department of Health and Human Services to block Medicaid cuts proposed by Gov. Paul LePage that would eliminate coverage for 6,000 Mainers.

The department recently allowed some of the cuts LePage proposed as a way to cope with the state’s budget shortfall.

Caper called the cuts “wrong-headed” because they simply shift health-care costs elsewhere. And he said the cuts will probably increase overall costs, as uninsured people end up sicker and being treated in hospital emergency rooms.

MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, is being targeted, he said, because “it’s a program that’s perceived as welfare, with a stigma, instead of providing a basic human right.”

The Maine AllCare forum starts at 11:30 a.m. at St. Luke’s Episcopal Cathedral, 143 State St. The event is free and open to the public.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.