SOUTH PORTLAND – When it comes to doctors, hospitals and health care, everybody has a story.

Four of the most visible people in Maine told theirs Friday as the major candidates for governor appeared together for the third time in a week at a public forum.

The discussion of health care and public health policy was held as part of the American Lung Association of Maine’s annual meeting and featured an hour-plus of questions and answers by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, Green Independent Pat LaMarche, independent Barbara Merrill and Republican Chandler Woodcock.

The candidates all put experiences from their own lives on display, trying to connect with the audience and make their policy positions more human.

Questions about affordability, access, state funding for preventative care and Dirigo Health dominated the event.

Merrill began by telling the strongly anti-smoking crowd about her mother’s two- to three-pack-a-day cigarette habit and death at age 60 from a smoking-related illness, as well as her own struggle against the addiction.

“I smoked for 10 years,” Merrill said. “When I quit, it was the single most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” including childbirth and taking the bar exam to become a lawyer.

She also defended her vote against the state budget in 2005, which raised the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $1, saying she felt that it disproportionately targeted the people in the state who could least afford such a hike.

Through much of the debate, moderator Mal Leary of Capitol News Service tried to rein in Merrill as she pushed the topics beyond health care and into sharp critiques of both incumbent Baldacci and Republican Woodcock.

Merrill also tried to steal the spotlight with a made-for-TV moment that was part of her opening statement. She presented Baldacci with a waffle iron, criticizing the governor for not taking a position on a proposed wind farm in western Maine, which the American Lung Association of Maine has endorsed. LaMarche and Merrill have endorsed the wind farm. Woodcock opposes it. Baldacci hasn’t taken a position.

Despite the theatrics and a few barbs slung around the table, the four managed a far-ranging and informative discussion of health care issues.

Both Merrill and LaMarche made major policy proposals, while Baldacci offered a detailed defense of his administration and Woodcock talked about market-based reforms that he said would reduce health care costs and increase access.

Throughout the debate, LaMarche mingled homespun anecdotes and memories from her participation in the Trek Across Maine, sponsored by the Lung Association, with full-throated advocacy for universal, single-payer health care.

“We have a broken system,” LaMarche said, describing the cost shifting that goes on when some people can’t afford health care. She called the current structure a ridiculous system that protects insurance companies instead of the economy or people’s health.

She also proposed two new state agencies, a Department of Environmental Medicine, to tie together public health and the environmental causes of illness, and a Maine Health Care Authority, which would protect health-care funding.

Merrill added to a proposal she had announced earlier in the campaign that would provide funding for all students in Maine to attend college if they receive good grades and vow to avoid drugs and alcohol. Merrill said tobacco should be added to the list of no-nos for the program, which is modeled on one from Indiana.

Baldacci offered his support for a constitutional amendment that would place the Fund for a Healthy Maine beyond the reach of legislative budget writers. Funded by the state’s share of money from the national tobacco settlement, the Fund for a Healthy Maine supports numerous public health, anti-smoking and preventative care programs and is credited with helping to reduce the number of teen smokers by 60 percent.

“Forty percent of our health premiums are for things we do to ourselves: smoking, drinking and eating,” Baldacci said, adding that the fund gives the state its first real opportunity to address prevention.

Baldacci also defended his signature program, Dirigo Health, from criticism by the other three candidates.

“Dirigo is not affordable,” Woodcock said toward the end of the program. “The quality of health care is being threatened.”

He cited figures that Dirigo Choice, the insurance component of Dirigo Health, is insuring only 11,000 people despite promises of covering 50,000, the need for more government accountability and the necessity of the government paying a $400 million bill to hospitals.

“Maine’s government must stop being the obstacle to affordable health care,” Woodcock said. “Health care needs to be patient empowered and provider-empowered.”

Baldacci defended Dirigo with a bevy of facts and figures, but he also read part of a letter his office had received.

He talked about Beatrice Blake of East Blue Hill, who wrote to him to say that before Dirigo she couldn’t go to the doctor because of the cost, even though her mother had died of cancer. After enrolling in Dirigo Choice, she went for an exam. Doctors found colon cancer, but not before it was too late, Baldacci said.

And Woodcock’s personal health care story: He’s in his 38th day of viral bronchitis, ironic given the audience, he quipped.

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