Pandemic has shown we don’t have to accept a broken health care system

By David Farmer

Coronavirus is showing us that we don’t have to accept a broken health care delivery system. We just need the will to make it better.

Maine crossed a major milestone in its efforts to fight COVID-19, when over the weekend Gov. Janet Mills announced that half of Maine people ages 16 and older have received at least one vaccination against the disease.

With the news, Maine also took over the top spot in an analysis by Bloomberg of states with the most residents fully vaccinated. 

The leader board for vaccinations is fluid and will certainly change, but Maine should be very proud of the progress we have made as a state — both in terms of sound public policy and in the way Maine people have stepped up to do their part to fight this terrible pandemic.

Imagine what the picture might look like, though, if our country hadn’t been forced to reimagine the way we deliver massive numbers of vaccines and instead had relied on the health care system pre-2020 to try to deliver life-saving medicine to hundreds of thousands of people in just a few short months?

Without the intervention of the state and federal governments, what would it be like to try to get vaccinated? What would the costs be to individuals? With the initial shortages as supply was ramped up, what would have happened?

While we can’t say for sure, I suspect it would have been disastrous.

Many families face that same reckoning on a regular basis, not with a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, but with trying to receive care for ongoing, chronic and potentially deadly diseases.

Last week, the Maine Legislature held public hearings on five bills aimed at protecting consumers from unpredictable runaway drug prices, market manipulation and pricing transparency, while also creating a new office focused on health care affordability.

Access to insulin is the prime example of high costs pricing sick people out of the medicine they need to live healthy lives.

Waterville resident Catherine Begin told the heartbreaking story of her son, Nick, who died at just 36 after self-rationing insulin because he couldn’t afford the medicine he needed to treat diabetes.

“I wish I could have saved him,” Begin said, admitting the guilt she’s carried as a mother who could not save her son’s life. “But then I realized, it wasn’t my fault. And it wasn’t Nick’s fault. It wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t afford his insulin. It costs about $5 to make a vial of insulin, but they sell it for more money than the average person can afford. If they can sell it for $38 dollars in Canada, why don’t they do that here?”

Susan Kinney also testified about the high cost of health care for her daughter, who has Crohn’s disease. Even with health insurance, Kinney’s family is carrying debt in eight different accounts as they try to manage getting the care their family needs in a system designed for profit over patient care.

Begin and Kinney aren’t alone. Thousands of families around Maine struggle for access to affordable health care, struggling against illness and injury that’s no fault of their own.

In introducing the package of bills, Senate President Troy Jackson centered the experiences of people living on the edge.

“The cost of lifesaving medication or treatment should never be or even feel like a death sentence. Yet, I know that it’s the reality for too many Maine families and seniors because I hear heartbreaking stories from the people in my community almost every day,” Jackson said in a statement. “Maine people deserve better than to be held hostage by pharmaceutical companies. With the Making Health Care Work for Maine package, more Maine families will get the care and lifesaving medication they need without going bankrupt.”

The way our state and country has rallied to answer the COVID-19 crisis shows me that when we have the will and a unified objective, we can overcome the limitations that deny care to too many people.

We need that same determination, innovation and activist mindset now to make sure that no more families suffer like the Begins and the Kinneys.

Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children.

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