AUGUSTA — One of the greatest threats to the United States is a cyberattack on its financial or energy systems, Sen. Angus King told a crowd of about 140 people on Wednesday morning.

King said the country needs to create a policy of deterrence if it’s going to prevent similar cyberattacks to the one Russian hackers made on the U.S. election system last year.

“I think the next Pearl Harbor will be cyber,” King said, in response to a question about cyber threats. “The vulnerability of our grid, of our financial system, of the gas pipeline system, is really, really serious, and I don’t think we’re adequately prepared, and there’s no simple answer to it.”

King, an independent and former Maine governor, made the comment during a wide-ranging set of remarks before a breakfast of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce, in which he also talked about health care, healing the country’s partisan divides and a law that was recently passed that should clear the way for the long-awaited expansion of a veterans health care clinic in Portland.

King, who sits on the Senate’s intelligence and armed services committees, went on to suggest that the United States needs to create a policy of deterrence for cyber threats, akin to the way it has treated the threat of nuclear attacks.

“This is a criticism of both the Obama administration and the current administration,” said King, who caucuses with Democrats. “We don’t have a cyber policy. We don’t have a strategy. We don’t have a doctrine. Somebody who attacks us via cyber, there’s no expected response, you see what I mean? (With) nuclear weapons, we established in the early ’50s, ‘You attack us, we attack you, you’re gone,’ and it’s deterrence. There’s a deterrent. That’s the best way to keep someone from hitting you is, they’re afraid of you hitting them back. … It’s one of the most serious problems we face, and we know it’s coming.”

But after the Russians attempted to influence the 2016 election, King continued, “They really haven’t suffered any consequences, so they’re going to do it again. They’re going to be back in a year and a half, three years.”

King made those comments in response to a question from Harry Lanphear, administrative director of the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

Last spring, King and U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho introduced legislation that would attempt to remove software vulnerabilities in the electric grid and explore lower-tech systems that would be less prone to cyber threats. King now hopes the legislation will be included in an intelligence funding bill that could come up for a vote this fall, he said on Wednesday.

In January, a report from the U.S. Department of Energy warned that “the U.S. grid faces imminent danger from cyberattacks,” which could undermine the country’s water, communications, transportation and defense systems, as well the economy.

King touched on several other subjects during his Wednesday remarks.

Health care and the ACA

He described a bill that was signed last week by President Donald Trump, which included numerous provisions for veterans health care.

One of those provisions is the authorization of $6.8 million for the expansion of an outpatient clinic in Portland, which was first proposed by the Obama administration in 2015.

The VA Maine Health Care System has operated a Community-Based Outpatient Care facility on Fore Street in Portland since 2011, as well as a second outpatient clinic in Saco. Under the expansion, the system would lease about 56,600 square feet at a different location in Portland. The Saco clinic would close and be consolidated into the larger Portland facility, which would offer more services than it does now.

There was an accounting error in the Congressional Budget’s Office estimates of the project’s costs that required additional legislation to fix, King said after his remarks on Wednesday.

The legislation was part of a larger funding bill that directs $2 million to the Veterans Choice Program, which allows patients to receive care from providers outside the Department of Veterans Affairs.

King also took a question from Rob Brown, the owner of Clark Marine in Manchester, about the growing health care costs his family has faced since the approval of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, in 2010.

Brown told King that his family of four gets its insurance through the marketplace created under the Affordable Care Act, and that their out-of-pocket expenses grew from $22,000 last year to $25,000 so far this year. Brown also said he recently received a letter from Harvard Pilgrim Health Care warning that their premiums would increase almost 40 percent next year.

“That’s just unsustainable,” Brown said. “I know you’re talking about it. What’s going to have to be done to get something into place that works for someone like us before the end of the year, so that we don’t at least go for one or two or three years of lapse without health care? I keep the policy so that if I have a heart attack, I don’t lose my business that I’ve spent 20 years building, and it’s a high price to do that.”

In response, King mentioned two broad steps needed to keep health care spending in check.

One of them is to urge the Trump administration to not cut subsidies to health insurance companies for low- and medium-income buyers of health insurance, as Trump has threatened to do, but which King compared to “basically sabotag(ing) the Affordable Care Act.”

Doing so would cause health insurance premiums to spike about 20 percent and the federal deficit to increase by about $20 million per year over the next 10 years, according to a Tuesday announcement from the Congressional Budget Office.

The Affordable Care Act remains intact after the Senate narrowly rejected a Republican proposal to rewrite the law in July, which was backed by President Trump. Both of Maine’s senators, King and Susan Collins, a Republican, voted against the rewrite.

In the longer term, King said that the focus of health care reform should be prevention and lowering costs, not how those costs are paid.

He said that health care spending now accounts for a larger part of Maine’s economy than it did when he was governor between 1995 and 2003, and gave the example of a promising program in Bath that tries to prevent elderly folks from falling by making adjustments to their homes at a cost of about $2,500.

“The biggest medical expense to Medicare is falls” and the injuries that can result, King said. “But Medicare says it only pays for medical procedures. I think that’s nuts. We’ve got to start paying for prevention. It will save the taxpayers money. It will save the seniors money. … I think it’s a matter of fundamentally changing the way we pay for health care.”

Reaching out

At the outset of his remarks, King also described steps he has taken to maintain collegial relations with his fellow senators on either side of the political aisle.

There’s been a trend of national politicians spending less and less time in Washington, which has made it harder for them to get to know each other, but King said he and his wife, Mary Herman, have recently purchased a 980 square foot property in the capital and been inviting senators to their house for take-out barbecue dinners. The guests have included everyone from senators Ted Cruz, a Tea Party conservative, to Elizabeth Warren, an outspoken progressive.

“You can’t hate someone if you know the names of their kids,” King said.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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