Opinion

Patient Bill of Rights is key to health and economic recovery

More than 11 months ago, Maine reported the first case of COVID-19. Through it all, Maine people and small businesses have shown extraordinary resilience, going to great lengths to keep their families and communities safe. But even as the pandemic wanes on, living like this isn’t getting any easier. 

  The good news is that COVID-19 vaccinations have begun in Maine, and testing is more available than before. Earlier this year, I heard from a woman named Michelle in Hampden, who said she and her health care colleagues were working as fast as they can to get people vaccinated. You could hear the relief in her voice. After months of caring for patients and worrying about the health of her colleagues, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. However, testing, screening and vaccination can only help us get through the crisis if Maine people can access and afford them. That’s why I’ve introduced the COVID-19 Patient Bill of Rights.

  To rebuild our communities and economy, we need to ensure that all Maine people  — workers, seniors and families — can get the care they need and deserve without the fear of financial ruin. This proposal would require all state-regulated health care plans to cover the cost of COVID-19 testing, screening and vaccination at no cost to Maine patients. It also would prevent health care providers from nickel-and-diming patients with various fees for these services.

  All too often the cost of care keeps Mainers from going to the doctor when they are sick or injured until the situation is either much worse or it’s just too late. With the COVID-19 virus, we know how important it is for people to get tested and treated early on for their health and the health of their loved ones. Both the state and the federal government have taken steps to reduce and eliminate the cost of COVID-19 testing and vaccination, but we want to ensure that no one falls through the gaps. 

  For example, in January, I was hospitalized for a heart procedure and I had to be tested for the COVID-19 virus. A couple of weeks later, I received a bill for the test, which was supposed to be free since my doctor recommended it. I’m just one person, but I know others have experienced similar issues. With the COVID-19 Patients Bill of Rights, we can ensure cost doesn’t stand in the way of COVID-19 testing and immunization. 

  Covering the cost of testing and screening is only one piece of the puzzle. We also need to ensure Maine has enough professionals to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to 1.3 million Mainers. This bill would allow qualified health care professionals, including dentists, to help with vaccination efforts in the County, where there already is a shortage of health care providers. 

As Dr. Norma Desjardins, DMD, of Presque Isle put it in her testimony, “LD 1 ensures that Aroostook County residents and indeed every Maine resident will have timely and convenient access to the COVID-19 vaccine.”

  Finally, the COVID-19 Patient Bill of Rights also expands telehealth to include audio-only services for people without the technology or the reliable high-speed internet necessary for video calls. ConnectME estimates that 83,000 Mainers lack access to sufficient high-speed reliable internet. Allowing for audio-only telehealth services would at least help close the gap and ensure these Mainers have the same access to health care. 

  The COVID-19 Patient Bill of Rights is about revitalizing our communities and economy in the wake of this historic crisis. It’s also about bringing families and loved ones together again. When more people have access to testing and vaccination, we can finally visit our loved ones in nursing homes, hug our parents and grandparents, and simply be together in times of celebration and great sorrow. 

  The COVID-19 Patient Bill of Rights is the first step toward the end of this pandemic and the start of a new era. As always, if you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to email me at Troy.Jackson@legislature.maine.gov or call my office at 287-1500. 

Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, is Maine Senate president. He can be reached at either 207-287-1500 (office) or 207-436-0763 (cell), or via email at Troy.Jackson@legislature.maine.gov.

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