AUGUSTA — Supporters of a government-funded universal health care system rallied on Tuesday outside the State House for the launch of a 10-day tour of eight cities considering legislation for their cause.

About 10 people gathered along Capitol Street held signs bearing messages such as “People Over Profits,” encouraging passing drivers to honk if they supported universal health care.

Representatives from Maine AllCare, the Maine chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program — a national organization advocating for single-payer health care — joined the Chicago-based Drive for Universal Healthcare at its stop at the State House.

Rep. Charlie Priest, D-Brunswick, who is co-sponsoring a bill to establish a single-payer health care system in Maine by 2017, spoke at a news conference about the proposed legislation before the demonstration outside.

The bill, L.D. 1345, eventually would transition a state exchange under the federal Affordable Care Act into a state-funded health care system, Priest said. He expects the Health and Human Services Committee to take up the bill in February or March.

The legislation’s goal is to provide affordable, quality health care to all Maine people and try to take the burden of employees’ health insurance away from employers, Priest said.

He thinks it’s possible the bill will pass in the Legislature, but it could face a veto from Gov. Paul LePage, who vetoed a bill to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act last session and opted to not take part in the state health insurance exchanges that are part of the federal law.

LePage described the Affordable Care Act as a stepping stone to a single-payer system in a November letter to the Obama administration.

However, some supporters of a single-payer system say the federal law shows why the country needs a different approach to health care because not everyone will be guaranteed insurance under it.

Priest said he thinks the Affordable Care Act will be expensive, and people in the middle class who don’t qualify for the subsidies to buy insurance on the exchanges will find costs increasing.

He also said congressional Republicans’ repeated attempts to repeal the law increase its uncertainty.

The hope with starting a universal health care system in the state is that federal government eventually will adopt a national system if enough states show their support for it, Priest said, calling such a development similar to what happened in Canada.

Fred Horch, a member of Maine AllCare, said it’s not an ideal course, but it may be the only realistic way to make universal health care a reality in the United States.

Horch, the former owner of a sustainable supply store in Brunswick, said he doesn’t think health insurance should be tied to employment status. If people with health insurance through their employers lose their jobs, they may end up uninsured when they’re most vulnerable, Horch said.

Health insurance also adds a burden on small-business owners, he said.

Horch, who didn’t pay for health insurance for his employees at F.W. Horch Sustainable Goods & Supplies, said he sometimes struggled to hire people because some were looking for a job that provided it. By not offering insurance, his store was at a disadvantage compared to large retail chains that could afford it, Horch said.

“It’s making it so hard for our small businesses to stay in business,” he said.

Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock, a small-business owner himself, said he agrees that health insurance shouldn’t be tied to employment and thinks it’s one reason for rising health care costs.

Even so, he said he doesn’t think a single-payer system is the answer. Instead, Malaby, a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, said he wants to see greater competition among insurance companies and more openness about pricing in the medical industry to allow people to shop around for medical care.

Another reason Malaby said he’s against single-payer health care is that people wouldn’t have “skin in the game” if the government was footing the bill.

“Then they don’t shop for a good value for prices, and they don’t always make decisions based on it,” Malaby said.

He also said he sees health care as a personal responsibility, not a human right. He said people can help ensure they stay healthy through a healthy diet, exercise and good lifestyle choices.

“I’m not of the mind that the government should be paying,” Malaby said. “When other people pay, you don’t care as much about how much you spend.”

Paul Koenig — 621-5663
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