A choice for Maine: war and Bush, or health care?

Opinion

Independence – or crankiness – comes naturally for some of us in the Northeast. An active separatist movement is on the move in Vermont. And at a Lewiston, Maine, forum Jan. 11, proponents of universal health care showed no enthusiasm for being part of a national campaign for universal health care, none for reaching out to the labor movement. They spoke of their pride in Maine’s leadership role in the fight for health care reform.

They were referring to Gov. John Baldacci’s Dirigo Plan, which will extend basic health insurance coverage to almost all Maine residents over the next five years. Indeed, the package does represent a unique and innovative attempt to address inequalities, and according to one speaker, insurance companies and hospitals view the plan as dangerous and are plotting retaliation. Reportedly, the Heritage Foundation is setting up an outpost in Maine.

Three days earlier, critics of Baldacci’s plan to cut Medicaid spending by $22 million had weighed in at a public hearing in Augusta. The cuts are part of the governor’s plan to make up for a $110 million state budgetary shortfall. The hearing resounded with predictions that poor people and the disabled would suffer because of the cuts. The governor’s spokesperson cut off any suggestions that certain tax exemptions enjoyed by large companies might be withheld in order to forestall the cuts.

No one at the hearing referred to recent national developments in health care coverage. In a Dec. 22, 2003, news release, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported that up to 1.6 million low-income people in 34 states – including 500,000 children – are losing health coverage because of state budget cuts. The cuts are in response to combined state budget deficits of $40-$50 billion that are projected for the coming fiscal year.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program – enacted in 1997 to provide coverage for low-income children not eligible for Medicaid – has provided 4 million previously uninsured children with insurance coverage. But six states with budgetary shortfalls have recently closed the children’s insurance plan to new enrollees.

The atmosphere at this hearing and similar ones throughout the nation might have been different had the story been told of how money is going for war and the military rather than for people. A perverted federalism that reduces citizens to vying for crumbs dispensed by the states surely represents another example of the politics of division. In that arena, people do not easily arrive at a common language to describe humanity’s work.

Here are some words that, spoken in public venues like these, might have been relevant: “We hear that the federal government no longer has much to do with humanitarian rescue. Our leaders tell us that on account of war without end, hundreds of billions are already spoken for. A deficit now stretches out into the trillions. There is no money left. They are gloating; the New Deal ‘beast’ they hate so much is starving, it’s on life support. We ask this: what if there were no war, no militarism? Answer: a few months of no Iraq war would return health care to millions, allow for decent schools – a few months more, vaccines for the world’s children.”

Michael Parenti suggests that an effective resistance to the Iraq war will center on the people themselves, who will beat back the warmakers: “The struggle is between those who believe that the land, labor, capital, technology, and markets of the world should be dedicated to maximizing capital accumulation for the few, and those who believe that these things should be used for the communal benefit and socioeconomic development of the many.”

Health care reformers in Maine will recognize contradictions. The governor’s health program is a testimony to good intentions. Health care coverage is expanded, but then an objective reality takes over. Indeed, while the rule of money and corporations holds sway, while the people’s resources and emotions are mortgaged to a regime of war and fear, the needs and hopes of regular people get short shrift. The job now, of course, is to block the plans and darken the prospects of the regime in Washington, and that means beat Bush in November.



W. T. Whitney Jr. is a pediatrician in rural Maine. He can be reached at pww@pww.org.