SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine (AP) – The nation’s health secretary lobbied Thursday for overhauling the nation’s health-care system, speaking in the home state of a Republican senator who holds a key vote on a committee that is crafting bipartisan legislation.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a group of about 70 women that reform is particularly important for them because women are more likely than men to be uninsured or underinsured. Her comments came during a panel discussion with leaders of women’s advocacy groups and other invited guests who shared their stories about health care.

The current health-care debate is similar to the back-and-forth discussions over a federal health insurance program for seniors that led to the passage of Medicare in 1965, she said.

“When we made that big step 44 years ago, it was a tough battle,” Sebelius said. “Lots of people said, ‘This is a terrible program.’ Lots of people called it socialized medicine.”

Sebelius has visited at least seven other states since the spring, speaking in support of President Barack Obama’s health-care proposals.

Her visit to Maine comes as Obama and White House aides have been talking to Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, in hopes of getting her support. Snowe serves on the Senate Finance Committee that is drafting a plan.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who was on the panel, said everyone knows Snowe has a key role in helping write bipartisan health-care legislation.

“We hope the secretary’s presence encourages her to keep working at it,” Pingree said.

Sebelius also participated in a panel discussion in Orono. The two events were closed to the public, but open to the media.

Georgette Kanach of Gray told the gathering at South Portland that she sometimes goes without food or doesn’t pay her electric bills so she can buy medication to treat her breast cancer. Even with health insurance, her co-payments eat up most of her limited fixed income, she said.

“If I lose my health insurance, I don’t know what I’d do,” she said.

Sebelius also announced that Maine has been awarded an $8.5 million grant over five years to expand health-care coverage for uninsured residents. The grant comes from the Health and Human Services’ new State Health Access Program.

Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, speaks on health care issues in South Portland, Maine Thursday Sept.3, 2009.

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