Health care has again emerged as a top priority in this election cycle, particularly since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S.
Democratic Senate candidate Sara Gideon outlined her health care priorities Tuesday, calling for a “public option” under Medicare, prescription drug price caps for seniors, a federal drug importation program, and expanded family and medical leave.
Gideon said that she also wants to make permanent telemedicine options launched in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and she called for additional investment in the health care infrastructure to address the disparities in access for rural and minority communities highlighted by the pandemic.
But the campaign of Republican Sen. Susan Collins accused Gideon of wanting “government to run health care” and of espousing policies that could put rural hospitals at greater risk.
Gideon, a Freeport resident who serves as Maine’s speaker of the House, is running a high-profile and well-funded campaign to unseat Collins this fall. Two independent candidates, Lisa Savage of Solon and Max Linn of Bar Harbor, have also qualified for the November ballot in a race that could help decide which party controls the Senate.
The list of health care priorities that Gideon outlined Tuesday include creating a voluntary, public buy-in option under Medicare while expanding eligibility for the Affordable Care Act and increasing tax credits for health care expenses. Those proposals are consistent with the positions outlined by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and other Democrats, but do not go as far as those espoused by candidates advocating for “Medicare for all.”
Gideon also pledged to fight to protect federal funding for Planned Parenthood and accused Collins of potentially undermining access to abortion through her pivotal vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The Gideon campaign also pointed to Collins’ vote in support of a Republican tax cut bill as paving the way for subsequent efforts to dismantle a key part of the Affordable Care Act.
“Here in Maine, we’ve expanded Medicaid, put protections in place for seniors and people with pre-existing conditions, cracked down on big drug companies and protected reproductive rights,” Gideon said in a statement. “It’s time Mainers had that kind of leadership in Washington, and that’s exactly why I’m running.”
Collins’ campaign responded by predicting that Gideon’s priorities would “devastate rural hospitals, increase taxes and harm patients” while increasing health care costs for individuals with private insurance.
“Sara Gideon wants the government to run health care, and she wants to pay for it by raising your taxes. Many rural hospitals are already struggling to even stay open, and Gideon’s plan would only increase the tremendous pressure on these hospitals – putting patient care at risk,” said Kevin Kelley, spokesman for Collins’ campaign.
“In order to lower health care costs in Maine, we must tackle the underlying cost of health care,” Kelley said in a statement. “Senator Collins’ health care plan is aimed at lowering these costs. Senator Collins’ plan would increase price transparency so consumers know exactly what they’re paying for and how much it will cost. Collins’ plan would reduce health care premiums for Mainers by 40 percent while continuing to protect those with pre-existing conditions. And it would help lower the prices of prescription drugs by increasing competition in the marketplace.”
Collins has not released a specific health care “plan” for her 2020 re-election bid, and the campaign’s website does not feature any links to specific issues, health care or otherwise. But the campaign provided a lengthy list Tuesday of the senator’s work on health care issues.
Those include: authoring laws to bring cheaper generic drugs to market more quickly; lowering income thresholds for medical-related tax deductions; successfully advocating for more robust federal research funding into diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease; and helping secure hundreds of millions of dollars for Maine hospitals or health care institutions during the pandemic.
Collins has also pointed to her co-authorship of the Paycheck Protection Program that has provided more than $2 billion in forgivable loans to 28,000 businesses in Maine during the COVID-19 crisis.
Health care was expected to be a top Democratic issue again this election cycle even before the coronavirus hit the United States, sickening 5.7 million people and causing more than 177,000 deaths in the United States alone.
In two key perceived vulnerabilities, Gideon and Democrats have attacked Collins for her party’s repeated attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and for her support for Kavanaugh.
Collins opposed the final version of the Affordable Care Act that passed Congress in 2009 and 2010. During the enrollment period that ended last December, more than 60,000 uninsured or self-employed Mainers had signed up for coverage through the ACA.
Congressional Republicans have pushed dozens of bills to dismantle or undermine the law over the years. Although Collins has consistently opposed repealing the ACA without a replacement, she was one of the pivotal votes in the 51-48 passage of the 2017 Republican tax cuts bill that also eliminated the so-called “individual mandate” tax penalties for not having insurance.
Republican governors and attorneys general are now suing – with the support of the Trump administration – to overturn the health care program, arguing the tax law’s elimination of the individual mandate renders the broader ACA invalid.
Collins’ vote for Kavanaugh also has cost her support among groups that fiercely defend women’s access to abortion because they believe he would vote to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision despite his assurances to Collins that it was “settled law.”
On Tuesday, Collins’ campaign responded to Gideon’s health care plan by pointing out that the senator has “taken over 50 votes throughout her career in support of women’s reproductive rights.” They also noted that, in 2017, the head of Planned Parenthood said Collins “never wavered” when issues of women’s access to health care were on the line.
But earlier this year when Planned Parenthood endorsed Gideon’s candidacy, the acting president and CEO of the organization, Alexis McGill Johnson, said “it’s clear that (Collins) has turned her back on those she should be championing.”
Several recent polls have shown Gideon leading Collins, although the race is widely considered to be a toss-up at this point. The race is already the most expensive in state history, with Gideon and Collins raising well over $40 million as of earlier this summer and outside groups funneling another $27 million into the competition.