This week Maine voted to become the 32nd state to expand Medicaid despite opposition by Gov. Paul LePage, who had vetoed five previous expansion bills passed by the state legislature and has now threatened to block the results of the ballot initiative. Unless Mr. LePage succeeds, about 80,000 more Mainers will be eligible for coverage, a victory in an unsettling year for health care in America.
With the Affordable Care Act under constant threat from the Trump administration and out-of-pocket costs rising faster than wages, health care topped the list of the most important issues facing Americans this year.
However, Maine and other rural states face a health care crisis that Medicaid expansion can’t fix on its own. It’s not about affordable coverage; it’s about access: For too many rural areas, doctors and hospitals are scarce.
In the postwar era, America made hospital construction and modernization a priority. On Aug. 13, 1946, Harry Truman signed the Hill-Burton Act,giving communities grants and loans for hospital construction. By 1975, almost one-third of American hospitals owed their creation to the law. Financing for Hill-Burton health care construction ended in 1997, but one rule from the original bill still applied: These hospitals had to give free or reduced care to people who couldn’t afford services. As rural areas aged and the population shrank because of manufacturing’s decline and the rise of a technology-driven economy centered on urban areas, hospitals struggled to stay in operation.
Under the Affordable Care Act, hospitals started shutting down at worrisome rates because of an increase in financial penalties for noncompliance with A.C.A. mandates, the cost of tighter reporting standards and smaller reimbursements for certain procedures. Since the A.C.A. became law in 2010, over 80 rural hospitals have closed nationwide. Maine alone has lost three hospitals in that time, about 10 percent of its rural total.
If closings continue at this rate, 25 percent of America’s rural hospitals will have disappeared in the decade after Obamacare’s passage. This does not take into account facility deterioration, doctor departures or department closures.
This is a big problem for Maine, which has the highest percentage of rural residents in the country, according to the most recent census data. Calais Regional Hospital in Down East Maine recently oversaw its last childbirth. The obstetrics department closed in late summer, forcing women in labor to drive 50 minutes to deliver their babies. Despite an opioid crisis that increases the chance of high-risk pregnancies, this same privately owned hospital shut down its pediatrics wing and intensive care unit in recent years, because of financial pressure from the management company halfway across the country in Tennessee.
This was hardly an isolated example in Maine. The town of Jackman closed its 24-hour emergency room in September, and Boothbay lost its only hospital in 2013. Rangeley, where my wife’s family lives, is an hour away from the nearest hospital and has no doctor in town.
Meanwhile, Maine Med in Portland, Maine’s largest city, is about to break ground for a $512 million addition just a few years after it finished a $40 million renovation. While rural Maine’s hospitals and departments are closing because of large losses, Maine Med had, for 2016, a $61 million surplus.
Medicaid expansion is a welcome source of new revenue to rural hospitals in Maine because more insured patients mean fewer uncompensated treatments. Still, it comes nowhere close to fixing the problem or, politically, putting any meaningful points on the Democratic scoreboard.
In 2016, Donald Trump won Maine’s rural congressional district by a 10-point margin and rural counties in America at large by a 26-point marginon a message of repealing and replacing Obamacare. As Maggie Elehwany of the National Rural Health Association said in an NPR interview this year, rural Americans voted for Mr. Trump in part because of health care. “They see their hospitals closing,” she noted. “And one hospital C.E.O. described it as a three-pronged stool. It’s the churches, the hospitals and the schools. If you lose one of those legs of that stool, the whole community collapses.”
Since President Trump hasn’t been able to deliver on any meaningful legislation to support rural voters, it is the Democrats’ time to deliver. One good step is a bill sponsored by the Democratic senators Tim Kaine of Virginia and Michael Bennet of Colorado called Medicare-X. It would give a public option to Americans in rural counties where limited competition has yielded higher-priced health insurance options.
It still doesn’t solve the heart of the rural problem. Democrats can’t just lower premiums and expand Medicaid. We must strengthen rural communities by making access to high-quality health care services a priority of any proposal. In any future legislation, we should demand grants for new hospitals, funds to modernize crumbling ones and financial incentives for top doctors to work in these areas. This will not only make rural communities healthier, but also more welcoming for growth and new business.
No person suffering from a heart attack should die because a hospital is too far. No pregnant mother should have to risk the health of her baby because she can’t make it to a delivery room in time. As Democrats, we believe that health care is a right. It would be a big mistake to expand health care insurance but offer no place to use it.