Mainers at Bangor rally urge Congress to strengthen Medicare and Medicaid

Advocates and lawmakers gathered Thursday in Bangor to celebrate the 56th anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid and to support proposals before Congress that would expand the programs and make historic investments in health care and the economy. 

The event comes as negotiations are ongoing in Washington, D.C, on a budget package to address a litany of unmet needs around the country. Earlier this month, Senate Democrats reached an agreement on a $3.5 trillion framework for a bill, which they plan to attempt to pass through a procedural tool known as reconciliation, which allows the legislation to avoid a Republican filibuster. 

That proposal aims to include a number of reforms advocates say are essential, including empowering Medicare to negotiate to lower drug prices, which have skyrocketed in recent years. One avenue to do that could be through the Lower Drug Costs Now Act, which would allow Medicare to negotiate to lower prices and hold drug manufacturers accountable for raising prices faster than the pace of inflation. Maine representatives Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden have both signed onto the bill in the past, but are not listed as co-sponsors of the current legislation. If passed, the bill is projected to benefit both Medicare recipients and those with private insurance.

Given the rising prices of many medications, it’s clear that action needs to be taken, said those at Thursday’s event.

“Even with my ‘good’ insurance, my diabetes costs me $300 a month,” said Dick Bissell of Bangor, a retired nurse and veteran who has private insurance. “You hear stories like that all the time: People dying because they can’t afford their insulin, or delaying medical care because they can’t afford it until it becomes an emergency, or going into serious debt because they can’t pay their medical bills. This isn’t right. We need to change the system so everyone has good, affordable health care.”

State Rep. Amy Roeder (D-Bangor) also spoke at the event about the importance of lowering drug costs. 

Rep. Amy Roeder speaks during Thursday’s event | Maine People’s Alliance

“Negotiating prices for prescriptions in Part D and extending those lower prices to people with private insurance is common sense,” she said. “As long as drug corporations have monopoly power to set prices without any accountability for their price-gouging, they will always put profits over people. Many other government programs already negotiate and as a result pay half of what Medicare pays for medicines. It’s long past time to do the same in Medicare and make medicines more affordable for those that need them.”

In the Maine legislature this year, progress was made in addressing rising prescription drug costs, although two bills to tackle the issue were vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills. 

In addition to taking on drug costs, Senate Democrats’ framework for the reconciliation package would also expand Medicare — which covers those 65 and over and people with disabilities — by providing dental, vision and hearing benefits through the program. More than 345,000 Medicare enrollees live in Maine, with that number projected to increase as the population ages. In addition, congressional Democrats are aiming to use the legislation to close a coverage gap in Medicaid impacting 2.2 million people that has been created by the refusal of some Republican-led states to expand that program.

During her speech at the event, state Rep. Laurie Osher, a Democrat from Orono and a small-business owner, said Medicare and Medicaid are crucial avenues to providing health care to many who need it. Osher said it’s time to build on that progress, expanding the programs and ensuring that all people have health care. 

“Medicare and Medicaid have had a profound, positive impact on the lives of millions of Americans,” she said. “Now, it is important to imagine a better future, one where we’ve improved these programs so that they help everyone to be healthy and to have good, affordable care when they’re not healthy. We need health care for all.” 

Top photo: A speaker at Thursday’s rally | Maine People’s Alliance

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