January 5, 2013

Turns out there IS a doctor in the House

Well, three, actually, and another in the state Senate. Together with other medical professionals, they make up a powerful bloc as Maine confronts its health care future.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

As a family physician practicing in Skowhegan for more than 30 years, Dr. Ann Dorney knows all too well the mounting challenges of providing health care in Maine.

click image to enlarge

There are four medical doctors serving in the State House in the coming legislative session: top, Rep. Ann Dorney, D-Norridgewock; above left to right, Rep. Jane Pringle, D-Windham; Rep. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham; and Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick, D-Bangor.

Contributed photos

In that time, she has delivered more than 1,000 babies, relishing one of the great joys of her profession. More recently, she joined the staff at Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan because private practice was no longer financially feasible, and she has witnessed the devastating impact of substance abuse on many of her patients.

“I know more than I want to know about opiate addiction in central Maine,” Dorney said in a recent telephone interview from her home in Norridgewock.

Dorney will count on first-hand experience as she assumes a new role as state representative of House District 86 in the 126th Maine Legislature, at a time when health-care reform and social service issues dominate the political landscape and public discourse.

Dorney, a Democrat, is one of four medical doctors who will serve this session – the highest number since six physicians served in 1933 and the same number as in 1935, according to records culled by librarians at the Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library.

The doctors are leading an effort to build a health policy caucus of legislators who want to develop bipartisan solutions to health care issues. They are among 14 legislators who work in health-care or social-service fields, a group that includes two emergency medical technicians, a pediatric nurse practitioner, a social worker, a family therapist, a dental hygienist and a pharmacist.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, a family therapist, believes legislators with professional experience will bring additional clout to simmering debates related to the federal Affordable Care Act and health-care reform in general.

The issues are complex and range from increasing demand for social services and mental health care, to the possibility of expanding Medicaid coverage provided through MaineCare. Eves compared the potential influence of health-care and social-service professionals to that of business owners on economic development and farmers on agricultural concerns.

“There are big things happening in health care and social services today, and these are individuals who care about their communities,” Eves said. “They understand how the system works and know what can be improved.”

The doctors also represent Democratic majorities regained in both the House and the Senate in the November elections. In addition to Dorney, the doctor lawmakers are Rep. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham, a retired family physician who was elected in November to a third term for House District 130; Rep. Jane Pringle, D-Windham, a retired medical clinic director who is serving her first term for House District 111; and Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick, D-Bangor, a rheumatologist who is serving his first term for Senate District 32.

Physician legislators were more common in the 1800s and early 1900s, when several doctors were elected nearly every session, peaking at 13 in 1909. Gordon Smith, executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association, recalls the legislative makeup in the 1960s and 1970s, filling a gap in library records.

“I can take you back half a century,” Smith said. “Since then, we’ve never had more than two physicians in the Legislature at the same time.”

Smith noted that 20 doctors serve in the newly sworn in 113th Congress, which he said reflects the fact that many physicians “are knowledgeable and engaged people who understand the importance of reforming health care policy.”

Dorney has been appointed to the Health and Human Services Committee; Pringle and Gratwick have been appointed to the Insurance and Financial Services Committee, with Gratwick as Senate chairman; and Sanborn has been appointed to the Appropriations Committee, after serving four years on health and human services.

(Continued on page 2)

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