Just before Christmas, Gov. Paul LePage turned down a five-year, $2.5 million federal grant that would have helped Mainers avoid colon cancer. That decision represented a failure to recognize the medical reality faced by the people of our state, and to heed the advice of the medical community.

I was a doctor, entrusted with people’s lives, for 35 years before I became a state senator. I am greatly concerned that the governor has put people’s lives at risk based on the false premise that he will be saving tax dollars.

First, some background: Colorectal cancer is the third-most common cause of cancer deaths in Maine. About 900 of our family members, friends and neighbors are diagnosed with this disease each year, and about 300 die, according to the most recent data. Treatment — which can include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy — is lengthy, debilitating and expensive. The outcome is often poor. It is a nasty way to die.

The good news is that prevention works. About 200 people are saved every year in our state thanks to having this disease caught early by their doctor via a colonoscopy. During that procedure, a doctor looks for polyps (small, mushroom-like growths in the colon that often are a precursor of cancer) and removes them. The procedure is recommended every 10 years for everyone over age 50, or more often for those at high risk. Colonoscopies aren’t much fun, but compared to cancer, it’s no big deal. Anesthesia is always available.

Unfortunately, colonoscopies are hard sell for many doctors, and the disease regularly goes undiscovered until its late stages. By then it’s often too late. That’s why Maine applied for a federal grant to support a public health initiative to increase screenings and prevent colon cancer. In June, our state was one of 24 successful applicants, and was awarded the federal dollars, which the governor unilaterally decided to decline.

Those dollars would have focused on insured Mainers who aren’t taking advantage of screening. It would have funded five year’s worth of physician and patient reminder systems, transportation and outreach to Maine seniors. This would have removed barriers and increased the number of colonoscopies, and likely would have saved lives.


The governor’s refusal to accept the grant goes against the advice of the Maine Medical Association, the state’s hospitals, and many Maine physicians and health care organizations. They’ve all urged the governor to change his mind, to no avail.

The Department of Health and Human Services has said the federal funding is not a good use of taxpayer dollars (though they didn’t explain why that didn’t stop them from applying for the grant in the first place). Either way, the department couldn’t be more wrong.

Treatment for advanced colon cancer isn’t just unpleasant; it’s also expensive. Those increased health care costs drive up insurance premiums for all of us. Even if they didn’t, no one “saves” money when the state rejects federal dollars such as these. That money will simply go to another state, and those citizens will enjoy the health benefits instead of Mainers.

Just like he did at Marden’s, our governor has kicked off another “Great Maine Giveaway.” Except this time, instead of giving away huge discounts to thrifty shoppers, he’s giving another state potentially life-saving money that should have stayed here to help Mainers.

Each of us has a colon. We like to think it doesn’t exist — let alone that it could kill us — but it’s essential for our health and well-being. Insurance companies don’t make money preventing cancer, so we need public health policy to pick up the slack.

Public policy must deal with reality, not be a slave to the governor’s ideological aversion to federal dollars. This grant has the power to help more of us avoid dying an unnecessary, expensive death from colon cancer.

Sen. Geoff Gratwick, D-Bangor, is a retired medical doctor, and the ranking Senate Democrat on the Insurance and Financial Affairs Committee.

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