Dozens of articles have been written over the past two weeks about the difference of opinion between Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree about the Affordable Care Act.

The disagreement is based on whether the health care law, also known as Obamacare, requires Maine and other states to keep helping certain groups of people under what’s known as the “maintenance of care” provision.

Newspapers and TV and radio stations across the state discussed a letter Pingree wrote to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Pingree asked her to clarify whether the law would allow LePage and the state of Maine to unilaterally begin denying care to these groups, which include low-income parents, 19- and 20-year-olds and seniors and people with disabilities receiving assistance with prescription drugs.

Media outlets both in Maine and across the country reported on the governor’s response. LePage, who had recently signed a Republican-backed budget that cuts care for about 27,000 of these Mainers, wrote his own letter addressed to Pingree.

In it, he maintained his position that the Supreme Court ruling (which upheld the Act but limited some of the Medicaid penalties if states don’t extend care to certain groups) means that he no longer has to request a waiver to start denying care. He also attacked Pingree, using some very personal language.

It was the tone of his letter and the personal conflict between two elected officials that got most of the attention (especially the part where LePage accused Pingree of being “part of the jet-setting Washington culture,”) although The New York Times did use the back-and-forth as a way to talk about the larger health care policy debate.

Out of all these media reports, however, no journalists actually talked to any of those 27,000 Maine people who will be affected by the cuts if LePage gets his way.

I think it’s time we heard from one.

Jim Burns is 52 years old and lives in Amity, in Aroostook County, just north of Houlton and across the border from New Brunswick.

Jim was a customs broker, inspecting goods entering the United States from Canada, until crippling lower-leg circulatory issues forced him out of the job. He now survives mostly on Social Security disability payments and describes himself as “a flinty, penny-pinching Yankee.”

Burns, with the help of the Aroostook Agency on Aging, has determined that he’s just over the new income cap put in place by LePage and Republicans in the Legislature. If LePage is able to bypass the ACA’s maintenance of care provisions, Burns will no longer receive help through Maine’s Drugs for the Elderly program to pay for his medication.

For Burns, this issue isn’t about a public tussle between two politicians or a policy debate on federal-state health care requirements and funding. For him, it’s a question of whether he can afford to keep his leg.

“If this (the drug program) is cut, then what’s next for me is amputation and then death. The doctor tells me it’s not a matter of if I lose the leg but when,” said Burns.

Health care isn’t just a line in a state budget or an issue tab on a politician’s website. It’s a basic human right. When it’s denied or allowed to become unaffordable, the result is human suffering.

Twenty-seven thousand people isn’t just a number; it’s a collection of individual lives and stories. These are our neighbors and friends who have lost their jobs or earn too little to afford care or who have become sick or have been injured.

Setting aside the fact that care for these groups pays for itself in the form of less use of expensive emergency care (pills are cheaper than an amputation) and a healthier population and work force, providing care is just what we have to do in order to consider ourselves a moral society.

Decisions become easier if we accept health care as a human right. Of course we shouldn’t be cutting taxes for the wealthy at the same time we cut care for the disabled.

This is the narrative that has been lacking in news reports about this issue and in government decisions alike. It’s easy to make the issue about letters and press releases or about numbers and dollars in budget documents. These are public things.

What’s harder and more important is to get to the heart of the issue, where we find people with lots of need but little power.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes the Tipping Point blog on Maine politics at DownEast.com, his own blog at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine People’s Resource Center. He’s @miketipping on Twitter. Email to [email protected]

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