If there’s one issue that Democrats are pounding more than any other in Maine’s increasingly bitter 2nd District congressional race, it’s that two-term U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin voted last year to gut the Affordable Care Act.
It’s an issue Poliquin isn’t keen to focus on. Yet his critics, including Jared Golden, Poliquin’s top challenger, said they have no intention of letting the Republican incumbent skate on the issue.
Poliquin had voted before to keep President Barack Obama’s signature health care legislation intact until Congress could come up with something better, but in a showdown in May 2017, Poliquin sided with his GOP colleagues to adopt a plan to toss out the ACA.
At the time, Poliquin said he hoped the Senate would improve the measure but instead it killed the idea, leaving Poliquin on the hook for a controversial vote for a plan that would have stripped health coverage from tens of thousands of Mainers.
On his campaign website during each of the past two campaigns, the Republican lawmaker vowed to “end Obamacare” because “it doesn’t make sense to ruin the best private health care system in the world while trying to get there.”
So Democrats say it’s noteworthy that Poliquin has overhauled his campaign website for the Nov. 6 election to downplay his opposition to the health care program that many residents depend on for insurance. The language he used in 2014 and 2016 is gone.
Instead, the two-term Republican vows to “continue to work on improving access to affordable, quality health care in Maine.”
Emphasizing that his mother is a retired nurse — a point made in the first and last sentences of a long section on Poliquin’s health care policies — the Republican lawmaker mostly focuses on what he’s sought to do for Maine patients and providers.
It’s a revision that caught the attention of a Democratic group, Think Progress, that pointed out many embattled GOP lawmakers who in 2016 trumpeted their intention to kill Obamacare now avoid the topic completely.
Though Vice President Mike Pence and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., have both said in recent days they intend to continue to try to repeal the ACA, some of the most vulnerable Republicans, including Poliquin, are no longer pushing the issue on the campaign trail.
“Bruce Poliquin may try to hide from his constituents, but he can’t escape his record on health care,” said Jon Breed, Golden’s campaign manager. “Not only did Bruce Poliquin vote to deny Americans health care coverage, he also voted to gut protections for pre-existing conditions, increase premiums, and cut $700 billion from Medicare.”
Breed added, “The congressman may think he can get away with scrubbing websites, dodging reporters, and locking doors, but rest assured, voters are paying close attention.”
Brendan Conley, Poliquin’s campaign spokesman, scoffed at the claim.
“Our website? They’re really grasping at straws,” he said.
Calling Golden a “radical politician,” Conley said the Democrat, who favors universal health care, “is pushing a risky health care scheme that would alter Medicare for seniors, more than double taxes on Mainers, and send health care costs soaring by $32 trillion.”
Conley said the GOP incumbent was one of few who voted against repeal of the ACA in the past — though he voted for it in 2017 — because “there was no replacement or fix ready to protect those who chose the system.”
Poliquin, he said, “is working to lower costs and ensure protections for those with pre-existing conditions, putting forth his own, Maine-based, free-market, 14-point plan on health care in his first year in Congress” that still serves as a template for a possible successor to the ACA.
A fair number of Mainers are likely paying close attention to Poliquin’s health care policy.
The Kaiser Family Foundation this summer found that one in four voters — mostly Democrats and independents — are “health care voters” who consider a congressional candidate’s stance on the issue the most important factor in deciding which contender will get their support on Election Day.
In May 2017, Poliquin backed a House Republican move to repeal the ACA with the explanation that Congress had no choice except to fix what he called a failing health care program.
Given projections that killing the ACA would leave 100,000 more Mainers without health insurance and push up prices sharply for many older residents, Poliquin’s decision put him on the hot seat in a district where health care remains a major worry.
Poliquin said at the time that he “was elected to Congress to fix our serious problems. That’s exactly what I’m doing. If we don’t fix this Obamacare problem, it’s going to get worse.”
It turned out that Poliquin cast his controversial vote in vain. The Senate refused to go along with the repeal when three GOP members, Maine’s Susan Collins among them, voted against the bill.
Gov. Paul LePage last fall hailed Poliquin for “putting the needs of Mainers first,” in contrast to the state’s two senators, who opposed repeal.
In the 2014 and 2016 incarnation of his campaign website, Poliquin said that “it’s a bad idea for the federal government to take over our free-market health care industry” and claimed “millions of frightened Americans are seeing their health insurance plans canceled because they do not include unwanted and expensive coverage mandated by the new one-size-fits-all health care law.”
Poliquin suggested letting insurance companies “offer plans with varying coverage, co-pays, deductibles, and lower monthly premiums” instead of mandating they provide at least a minimum of coverage under the ACA.
“The cost of this private insurance could be paid by expanding tax-free health savings accounts using federal tax credits,” he said, suggesting that, “Instead of sending Uncle Sam, say, $15,000 per year in taxes, a family could use that money to buy health insurance.”
But only a small percentage of Maine families in 2014 paid that much in federal income taxes.
That year, nationwide, 35 percent of taxpayers owed nothing to the federal government because their incomes were too low. Overall, the average American’s tax bill was $9,118.
Leaving aside those who paid nothing, the average bill among others was $14,040. With few exceptions, a taxpayer had to earn more than $100,000 annually to have to pay the federal government more than $15,000 in taxes.
This year, Poliquin has dropped any mention of health savings accounts or killing the ACA.
Instead, his website talks about his efforts to “bring down costs and improve care” by expanding access for veterans, speeding up payments to hospitals and hastening the availability of new drugs and treatments.
Poliquin mentions that he is pushing “for Maine solutions like the invisible risk pools created by the Maine Legislature which guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions while holding down and lowering health insurance costs for Maine people,” something he considers a possible model for national reform.
He also mentions his support for the elimination of the individual mandate so people can avoid fines and “choose the health plan which works best for them.”
Golden has called for the country to move toward a Medicare-for-all system that would provide universal care.
“Too many people in America are without adequate health care coverage, resulting in higher premiums for those who are insured,” he said, even though “preventable diseases like heart failure and diabetes continue to plague our communities.”
“To lower long-term costs and improve care, we must stop treating health like a private industry, and start treating health like a public good and a basic right for every American,” Golden said.
The Medicare-for-all proposal has already ignited controversy on the campaign trail and policy disagreements in Washington.
A recent Reuters-Ipsos poll found that 70 percent of Americans favor the idea of universal health care, including 84 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of Republicans.
Democrat Jared Golden, left, hopes to unseat U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican, in the Nov. 6 general election. (Contributed photos)