RUMFORD – Some medical workers in the River Valley say they are afraid that the governor’s proposed universal health care plan will eventually put the local hospital out of business.

Nearly 40 people, mostly employees of Rumford Hospital and its sister medical facilities, turned out Wednesday night to tell their local legislative representatives their fears.

“If rural hospitals close, people will die frequently,” said Dr. Thomas DeLuca, chief of medicine at Rumford Hospital and a member of Western Maine Internal Medicine. “We have cut our budget year after year after year, cutting staff, services and salaries.”

DeLuca, along with many others, said the section in the governor’s proposal suggesting a 3 percent cap on medical services could be devastating.

State Sen. Bruce Bryant, D-Oxford, said the bill is a place to start. He expects a considerable amount of work to be done on it in committee before it goes to a legislative vote in a few weeks.

“I don’t think a month is too short a time. The issues will come out,” he said, adding, “I’m committed to taking a serious look at the issues. This is my hospital, too.”

Rep. John Patrick, D-Rumford, and Rep. Randy Hotham, R-Dixfield, say they have also received dozens of phone calls from worried constituents.

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from the proposal,” said Hotham. “We’ve definitely got to do something. The governor has been bold in putting forward a plan.”

He added later that he was certain that the plan that is finally adopted would work for the state.

Patrick said an amendment is in the works that would lend some protection to small hospitals, although he did not provide details Wednesday.

Despite Bryant’s assurances that the bill will undergo changes over the next few weeks and that the reason it came up so quickly was to give the health-care community and insurance companies a chance to sit down and hash things out, this didn’t appease those at the meeting.

They were questioned about why a member of the medical community wasn’t placed on the commission that formulated the Dirigo Health Care Initiative. Some said the Medicaid program in the state is too soft. Others said the emergency room is overused for unnecessary services, driving up the cost of health care. Some questioned how people would be forced to join the new plan, while others were concerned that with a universal plan, people from out of state would use it.

Dr. Monique Aniel asked legislators how universal health care in the state of Maine could prevent those from outside the state from using the services.

“There is nothing to prevent this from happening. Maine could become a sacrificial lamb,” she said.

Echoing the cost concerns of others, Rumford Hospital Administrator John Welsh said the reduction in the state budget as suggested under the governor’s proposal would reduce the local hospital’s budget. And although he did not say that Rumford Hospital would close, he did say that small rural hospitals would be at risk.

Bryant said another forum to hear concerns from the medical community and those who are served by the local hospital will be held within the next two weeks in the Rumford or Bethel area.

DeLuca and others asked the legislators to table action on the bill until more study could be completed.

“What’s the haste to do the right thing? This (universal health care) will be revolutionary in the United States,” he said.

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