Regarding our health care, a perfect storm is sinking the ship

Senator Lisa Keim delivers this week’s Republican radio address

By Senator Lisa Keim

Sen. Lisa Keim – Oxford

A national group that encourages citizens to communicate with their elected officials says that for every one person who reaches out to make their voice heard, there are at least another 100 who share the same viewpoint.

Hello, I am Sen. Lisa Keim from Oxford County, bringing you this week’s Senate Republican Radio Address.

As a government official proudly here to serve you, it doesn’t take me long for me to recognize when something is seriously impacting Mainers as messages begin dropping into my voicemail, email and social media accounts, not orchestrated by any political party or lobby group but rather shared personal stories resulting from what is happening all around us. 

Unfortunately, the consistent theme the past two weeks has been very stark: lack of access to healthcare. 

A Livermore mother called me to relay her suicidal son’s trouble in receiving mental health care. He spent two days on a bed in the hallway of an ER before being offered the choice of a bed in Fort Kent or one out of state. Apparently no local facility had treatment options available.  As this mother aptly diagnosed, “The state has a responsibility; the healthcare system is broken and we have to fix it.”

Unfortunately, her experience is similar to that of a Rumford-area woman seeking mental health care for her sister’s husband who was exhibiting increasingly aggressive behavior.

And similar also to the desperate family member whose elderly aunt was sent home with a broken hip because the local hospital didn’t have enough staff to provide a bed for her.

And then the despairing husband who called a hospital over several consecutive days being continually told that he could not bring his seriously ill wife to the ER because they had no capacity. 

Using the statistic I first cited, these few stories are but a small example of what is happening across our state, and they don’t even begin to touch on the lack of ambulance service, care rationing, patient diversions and hospital department closures. The drastic changes in Maine’s healthcare system are deeply troubling, and we’re likely seeing just the beginning.

Maine has critically needed healthcare workers of all types well before the pandemic. From skilled nursing and critical care to long-term care and rehabilitation centers, the forecast on Maine’s health care system has long been dire, especially our lack of mental health care capacity.

But we now have the perfect storm of factors colliding and multiplying the impact. The pandemic pushed those struggling with mental health into a greater need for direct intervention, while delays in primary and preventative care have created more acute health care issues. Now, a true surge of COVID-19 cases has been layered in, impacting all healthcare facilities.

Amid this escalating situation, the Mills Administration dropped a COVID-19 vaccine mandate onto healthcare workers, stripping an estimated three percent from Maine’s overall healthcare workforce and catapulting our already-precarious healthcare system into a crisis. This, quite literally, is sinking the ship.

Last week, Gov. Mills mobilized the Maine National Guard and announced a federal “surge team” to help at the Maine Medical Center in Portland. The 14-member surge team of doctors, nurses and paramedics will assist with clinical care, while up to 75 Guard members will provide non-clinical services across the state to help open 30 to 50 bed units that will house patients with less acute care needs.

This help is urgently needed and we are grateful, especially to the men and women of the Guard who stand ready to serve their state in our time of need. Yet very few of us – and certainly none of the mainstream media – are asking the essential, most obvious question: What is the cost-benefit analysis of the vaccine mandate?

Take, for example, Central Maine Healthcare. Their system already had 600 openings prior to the pandemic, yet they were forced to fire about five percent of their workforce equaling 159 employees. That’s a significant loss, costing Rumford Hospital, for example, half of its respiratory therapists.

To keep any standard of care in Maine, hospitals have been forced to rely on traveling nursing staff who make up to $200 an hour, an unsustainably high labor cost that further aggravates the worker situation while our nurses here in Maine earn a much lower hourly rate – if they’re able to work at all.

The desperate need for healthcare workers cannot be overstated, yet the Mills Administration chose to enforce a hostile workplace mandate, forcing hundreds of healthcare workers out of their jobs. With COVID transmission and infection occurring between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, we have to ask, was the mandate decision advantageous or wise?

This week, I hosted a panel of six Maine physicians opposed to the COVID-19 mandate. The group spoke with legislators via Zoom and shared their experiences and the dangerous changes in health care due to short staffing.

In a comment that aptly summed up the seriousness of the situation we are facing in Maine, one surgeon said “…we’re looking at the collapse of health care, and the looming secondary consequences are devastating.” He added that recent hyperinflation risks destroying our healthcare systems financially and, when added to the workforce situation, the implications both short- and long-term are scary.

Maine’s COVID-19 mandate is not only an infringement on personal liberty, it is costing lives. It is time for the Maine Legislature – as a separate and equal branch of government – to stand up for the people.

Again, this is Sen. Lisa Keim of Oxford County, wishing you a wonderful Christmas. Despite the heavy troubles of our day, we can set aside time to focus on what is important – seeking the peace and joy of the Christ whom we celebrate in this season.

Merry Christmas!

Sen. Keim is the Republican ranking member of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Judiciary Committee.

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