ELLSWORTH — There was unity on at least one topic at Monday night’s candidates forum: ballot Question 1, a citizen’s initiative that would create a state-run, Universal Home Care program funded by a new tax on higher incomes.
If approved by voters Nov. 6, the program would provide free services to anyone needing long-term, in-home care.
All four forum participants — two Democrats and two Republicans — are against the measure.
Present were Maine State Senate District 7 candidates and current State House Reps. Richard Malaby (R-Hancock) and Louie Luchini (D-Ellsworth). Also participating were Maine House District 132 (Ellsworth and Trenton) candidates Democrat Nicole Grohoski of Ellsworth and Republican Mark Remick of Ellsworth.
Malaby is owner of the Crocker House Country Inn in Hancock. Luchini is Ellsworth High School’s cross-country coach.
Grohoski is a cartographer who works for a small mapping company. Remick is the owner/operator of Maine Storage Plus in Ellsworth.
“I don’t support the proposal as presented,” Remick said. “It’s an extra tax that cannot be absorbed by the people who live here. I do think the idea is worth exploring.”
Grohoski said, “I generally support in-home care for the elderly. However, I am concerned with funding mechanisms. We should go into the next session to see if the initiative could be more finely tuned through the legislative process instead of initiative process.”
Senate candidate Malaby said, “I think it was well-intentioned. I’m not sure it was well-written. There are other ways of providing care for home-based elders.”
Luchini cited several issues with Question 1.
“The devil is kind of always in the details when you read these things,” Luchini said. “It would establish a new tax. We’re still trying to figure out if it would affect married couples or just individuals. I think there are residency issues. I think we have six or seven definitions of residency.”
“Dedicated revenue just never works,” Luchini said. “Fundamentally, it’s a problematic way to write a budget.”
All but one candidate — Malaby — favors Medicaid expansion.
Luchini, Remick and Grohoski said voters have approved Medicaid expansion so it needs to be done.
“Before we expand Medicaid, we need to pay sufficient reimbursement rates to our providers,” Malaby said.
Also, staffing is an issue in adding 70,000 to the rolls, Malaby said.
“Frankly we have 30 people [Medicaid administrative staff] we’re missing right now. We need 100 more. It is not going to happen. The reason the money isn’t there is we knew we couldn’t hire the people.”
One question directed at the Senate candidates addressed Maine being the only state in the nation where infant mortality is on the rise.
“Two children in ‘the system’ died last year,” the question writer said. “This is unacceptable. How will you support all families in Maine?”
According to both Malaby and Luchini, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services needs work.
Malaby said a lot of the cases concern “pregnant addicted women, who are often on methadone.” Eleven cases of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in Maine were all related to methadone-using parents who had not been under the treatment of the state, Malaby said.
There are more issues to be addressed in the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, including failures in computer systems.
“We have issues with mandated reporters not coming forward and wanting to get the police involved,” Malaby said. “That is a major issue in the state.”
Luchini said, “It’s part of a dysfunction we’ve seen in the Department of Health and Human Services over the past few years. I think we really need to clean up Child Development Services and a lot of those things going forward.”
“I think Medicaid expansion is a big part of this,” Luchini said. Medicaid expansion would allow more people to receive treatment for opiate addiction.
Both candidates mentioned the state’s shortage of public health nurses.
“They’re able to teach people how to be parents,” Luchini said.
Among the questions the candidates were asked was what solutions the state of Maine should implement to address the current health insurance system, which is a “crippling burden.”
“I believe we must expand Medicaid as approved by the majority of Maine voters,” Grohoski said. “I am open to any and all options to fund this for the long term.”
Grohoski told the story of a family she met recently that owes a hospital $10,000 thanks to a broken leg, an illness and a high deductible policy.
“They went from financially comfortable to debt in literally a week,” Grohoski said.
Remick said he would address removing the ability for health insurers to charge more for coverage based on county of residence.
Remick said he also would call for more transparency in the industry.
“For example, an MRI in Bar Harbor is more expensive than an MRI in Ellsworth, which is more expensive than an MRI in Portland,” Remick said. “Transparency across the board is paramount in solving these issues.”
The League of Women Voters Downeast, The Ellsworth American, the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce and the Peace and Social Action Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ellsworth sponsored the forum. American Managing Editor Stephen Fay moderated the forum.