Rep. Poliquin can’t hide from health care vote

The lengths to which Maine Second-District Representative Bruce Poliquin will go to avoid taking a stand on an issue have become a running joke. He usually scrupulously avoids taking public positions to the extent that the BDN could have basically just re-run this cartoon of him hiding under his desk or this one of him saying a whole lot of nothing every day for the past two years and almost always be considered current and trenchant.

As the Press Herald editorial board put it recently, “When issues get steamy, Rep. Bruce Poliquin clams up.”

And why not? It has worked out for him so far. His disciplined refusal to comment publicly on the presidential nominee of his own party during the last election (while more privately backing Trump) might have been an insult to his office and to our collective intelligence but it seems to have turned out to be politically astute, given his re-election.

That’s why it’s so interesting that Poliquin took such a clear stand two weeks ago, quickly announcing his full-throated support for the Republican Affordable Care Act repeal plan advanced by House Speaker Paul Ryan and President Donald Trump.

“This new plan will bring much needed health insurance relief to the American People,” claimed Poliquin in a press release full of glowing praise for the proposal.

As we learned almost immediately, however, the bill would only bring “health insurance relief” in the sense that it would relieve people of their health insurance.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, 24 million Americans would lose coverage under the plan and premiums would spike (with reductions in costs only coming as the poor, sick and elderly are forced from the insurance markets). It is particularly disastrous to Maine, and especially Poliquin’s district, where people are older, live in more rural areas and make less money.

In large part what the law does is cut subsidies for the poor in order to give new tax breaks to the rich. The average family making $10,000 a year would lose about $1,420 while the average family making more than $1 million a year would get a tax cut of $51,410.

There are also provisions that allow insurance companies to charge more based on age, cut funding for Medicaid (including homecare for seniors) and that will cause costs to increase the most in rural areas. According to an analysis from the Kaiser Foundation, for one example, a 60-year-old in Aroostook County making $30,000 a year would see their health insurance costs go from $2,480 to $17,090. That’s a jump from 8% of their annual income to 57%.

As Sen. Angus King put it, “if you were designing a bill to hammer my state, it would be this bill.”

Perhaps those numbers and the near-universal public revulsion for this plan are why Poliquin has been attempting to backpedal a bit on from his initial, full-throated support. On Tuesday he put out a press release saying he had essentially asked President Trump and House leadership not to hurt the elderly quite so badly.

He didn’t exactly get his wish. Instead, the changes to the law made earlier this week were mostly more cuts to and restrictions on Medicaid, with the House punting the idea of any help for seniors to the Senate.

Even those changes apparently weren’t enough to bring members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus on board with the law, according to the latest whip counts, so as the legislation goes to a vote today Trump and Ryan are apparently making plans to strip away the Affordable Care Act’s Essential Health Benefits requirements to get them on board.

EHBs require that insurance plans cover basic health care services like emergency room visits, mental health and substance abuse treatment, prescription drugs, outpatient services, hospital stays, maternity care, vaccines and other preventive care, and vision and dental care for children. Tossing those requirements might reduce premiums, but only because the health care people are paying for is also greatly reduced. Lack of those elements will of course be more damaging for older, sicker populations like people who live in Maine’s Second District.

In short, following Poliquin’s advocacy, the bill has gotten worse for Mainers.

Later today, Rep. Poliquin will take a vote on this legislation in what could be a seminal moment for his political career. The bill is plainly devastating for his constituents, something that even he now seems to acknowledge, and a vote in favor can’t be helpful for his political future, but the same loyalty to Republican leadership that led him to declare his early support might be enough to keep him in line. He has shown he’s willing to flip his vote on the House Floor after arm-twisting by leadership.

Either way, later today, he’ll have to go on record on this legislation. Even the most dedicated of Congressional escape artists can’t hide under their desk forever.

Mike Tipping

About Mike Tipping

Mike is Maine's longest-writing political blogger and explores state politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center.