In 2016, Kathy Stewart of Winslow was falling through the cracks of our health care system, struggling to afford the oxygen she needs for her emphysema. The self-employed hairdresser should have qualified for expanded MaineCare (Medicaid), but repeated bipartisan attempts to expand Medicaid in Maine were denied.

So Kathy took time away from her job, her children and her grandchildren to speak out in favor of a citizen initiative to expand access to critical health care in Maine. A year later, on Nov. 7, 2017, Maine voters overwhelmingly passed the referendum directing the state to expand MaineCare.

Thursday marks the two-year anniversary of that momentous vote, when Maine became the first state in the nation to expand Medicaid at the ballot box. Now, Kathy is among over 40,000 Maine people who are enrolled in MaineCare under the expansion. Instead of falling through the cracks, they’re getting health care without having to sacrifice other essentials like heat and food. They can breathe easier – in Kathy’s case, quite literally.

With this crucial coverage now in place, we’re seeing Maine people get preventive screenings and treatment of and medication for chronic illnesses. As of Sept. 30, over 14,000 MaineCare expansion enrollees have received mental health treatment, and over 2,500 have been screened for breast or colorectal cancers. Over 5,700 of these new enrollees have been treated for substance use disorder. Spending remains within our projections, and Maine stands to receive nearly $700 million in federal matching funds through state fiscal year 2021.

I made expanding Medicaid job No. 1 when I took office because it was the will of the people. It is good for the Maine economy. And it is the right thing to do. Health care should not be a luxury or a privilege for the well off.

For that same reason, I also signed into law L.D. 1, which adds state-guaranteed protections for health care coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. We have expanded reproductive health care coverage under MaineCare, and I signed a prescription drug reform package into law to reduce the cost of medications. I restored the Maine Low-Cost Drugs for the Elderly and Disabled program to cover 1,800 more Maine seniors, supported treatment and prevention programs to help combat the opioid epidemic and bolstered public health.

But our work isn’t done. Threats to the Affordable Care Act still loom in the courts as the Trump administration continues to try to take health care away from millions of Americans. Too many Maine people already lack insurance. In 2018, before we expanded Medicaid, 106,000 people in Maine were uninsured, or 8 percent of the state’s population. Many of them were children – Maine had the highest rate of uninsured children in the Northeast last year, new data show.

Many uninsured people remain unaware that affordable, high-quality coverage options are available. That’s why last week, we kicked off open enrollment by urging Maine people and small businesses to visit CoverME.gov. This new statewide outreach campaign provides information on and connections to affordable coverage options through both the federal marketplace and expanded MaineCare. Maine people can apply for MaineCare at any time of year; enrollment through the federal marketplace ends Dec. 15.

Already we’re seeing a jump in MaineCare applications during the first days of open enrollment compared this time last year. We are prepared for the influx, thanks to the Department of Health and Human Services’ work to streamline the application process. But when open enrollment ends, our work will continue. We will work to get more Maine kids enrolled in the Children’s Health Insurance Program called CubCare. And we’re pursuing a state-based health insurance marketplace starting next year. This puts Maine – not the federal government – in the driver’s seat to help our consumers and small employers understand their local options for affordable coverage.

Kathy Stewart joined us for last week’s open enrollment announcement, to share how her life has changed with the expansion of MaineCare. After going for too long without coverage, now she has her oxygen back and she can afford her medications. I thank Maine voters for standing up for people like Kathy and promise to continue taking every opportunity make health care affordable for all Mainers.


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