“Too Many Rascals”

Big Win in Portland, Maine, for Universal Health Care — Labor Party Plays Leading Role

by William T. Whitney, Jr.

The author is active in the Maine-based organization Let Cuba Live and in the Labor Party chapter in that state.

On November 6, citizens of Portland, Maine, voted for a nonbinding ballot resolution that calls for a Canadian-style, single-payer universal health care system. The resolution calls for the City Council to report periodically on progress toward health care for all. The vote was 52% versus 48%, a remarkable victory in view of heavy spending lavished on the campaign by opponents of the resolution.

The victory capped a vigorous campaign that had been waged by a broad coalition made up of the Labor Party of Maine, the Maine People’s Alliance, the AFL-CIO, the Portland City Democratic Party, and the Independent Green Party. Duncan Wright — referendum organizer, Labor Party member, and psychiatrist—believes that the experience gained by activists who took part in the campaign will benefit future organizing efforts. He reports that many of his allies in the struggle with centrist orientations appeared to have moved during recent weeks toward positions of real militancy.

Last summer the Labor Party of Maine gathered the 3,000 signatures required for the non-binding referendum to be placed on the November 6 ballot. Then, in September, the Maine legislature enacted a bill establishing a system of universal health care in Maine. It provided for a Health Security Board charged with setting up financial mechanisms and the basics of an insurance package to be presented later to the state legislature, which will then have the opportunity to make universal health care a reality in Maine. The momentum derived from these victories contributed greatly to the campaign in behalf of the Portland resolution.

The campaign unmasked some basic motivations of resolution opponents. They might even have been listening to the adage from business that advises, “You have to spend money to make money.” Prior to the vote, a blitz of TV ads, video handouts, roadside signs, and so-called citizen meetings was unleashed, paid for mainly by the insurance industry — in particular, Anthem Insurance Company of Indiana.

By mid-October, health-care-for-profit corporations had spent $375,000, according to reports mandated by PAC regulations. Totals will end up over  $600,000, according to reliable estimates. Proponents of the resolution spent $10,000. The defeated, but well-heeled opponents of the resolution showed little concern for the 175,000 people in Maine — over 13% of the population — who have no insurance at all, or for the tens of thousands who pay exorbitant premiums for skimpy insurance. And of course, for people without jobs or affordable housing health insurance is usually out of reach financially.

The Anthem Company had purchased non-profit and publicly-owned Maine Blue Cross and Blue Shield a year ago. Premium rates were jacked up right away, and recently the company announced more hikes, 32% for non-group policies and 20% for group policies.  On October 29, Anthem’s Maine-based company made its first public stock offerings. CEO Harry Glasscock took in $1,900,000 in 2000, and with the conversion to a stockholding company, he will be able to take home up to $4,000,000 plus stock options.

After days and nights of organizing, union official and chemistry teacher Richard Lewis reported that for him the fight for the resolution had come to resemble a “neat experiment” demonstrating the inner workings of politics under capitalism.

Leaders of the Portland campaign believe that the fight for universal health care has become a mainstream affair. In a letter to the editor of the Portland Press-Herald, Janet Houghton R.N. wrote: “For-profit health insurers are in the business to make money. It is hard, if not impossible, to provide good health care and, at the same time, keep shareholders and management happy.”

And then there is the moving story of Howard Buckley, CEO since l975 of Mercy Hospital, Portland. Republican Buckley recently bowled over a meeting of business leaders by calling for a single-payer health care system. In a Press-Herald interview prior to the referendum vote, he spoke of a “level of distrust” among all parties, a “bizarre situation” brought on by managed care, and the present-day impossibility of nurses being able to practice what they learned in training about care for the “whole patient.” Under the present system, Buckley said, “There are too many rascals, and none of them were elected.”

He continued: “The people we serve no longer trust payers or providers…They become discouraged by the bureaucracy that we have built around the fundamental provider-patient interaction. And finally, I feel that health care isn’t a privilege, but a right that belongs equally to everybody. In the end, I am convinced that only a single-payer system will truly change the system for the better.”

Buckley plans to retire in 2002, and none too soon for a fellow CEO who observed, “I hear that you are going through a period of catharsis and true confession as you near retirement.” Buckley, however, joins forces with the American College of Surgeons and the American College of Physicians, organizations that years ago called for a single-payer health care system for our nation. Neither one is noted for its “subversive” characteristics.