Congressman Mike Michaud talks about his work on veterans’ affairs, manufacturing, and health care

An exclusive interview

By Ramona du Houx

August 27th, 2010 

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Congressman Michaud joined President Obama, veterans, caregivers, and members of Congress at the White House for signing of the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act. Courtesy photo

The temporary tariff on coated paper from China and Indonesia —

More than 4,000 jobs have been lost in the paper sector since 2002, according to the Maine Department of Labor. But the state managed better than other areas in the U.S. during that same time, as over 56,000 jobs were lost elsewhere in the U.S. according to the Alliance for American Manufacturing. So far, in 2010, Maine pulp exports are up 200 percent and paper exports — 72 percent. Is that partially due to the temporary tariff imposed by the U.S. Department of Commerce in March, 2010?

“I believe so. It’s something I’ve followed and worked for — for a very long time. It already has saved jobs in Maine, by giving our paper companies a level playing field. It will not only maintain their operations but also grow jobs, and the industry.

“A significant part of our economy in Maine, especially in the northern part of our state, is based on our natural-resource-based industries. Our paper mills, pulp operations, sawmills, loggers, and haulers not only support the jobs in their own operations, but also the small businesses they work with, which in turn support even more. The economic ripple effect is huge.

“A recently released study by the Economic Policy Institute documents the subsidies that China’s government provides its paper industry and the ensuing exponential growth of production and export sales of Chinese paper, which has tripled in the last 10 years. Chinese and Indonesian coated paper has been dumped on our market at a rate that makes it almost impossible for our domestic paper makers to compete with.

“I was very pleased the International Trade Commission put a temporary tariff on coated paper from 30 percent to 135.8 percent. It was a unanimous decision. They clearly thought that issue was severe enough to put a huge tariff on it.

“Until now we have suffered from layoffs and closures; this is helping to turn the tide. Sappi paper mill in Skowhegan avoided hundreds of layoffs because of the new tariff. An estimated 1,200 jobs were affected at both the Sappi mills in Maine, and about 700 to 800 at the NewPage mill in Rumford, according to the Alliance for American Manufacturing.”

This issue is close to home for you, isn’t it?

“I worked for Great Northern Paper Company for more than 29 years, witnessing firsthand the effects of bad trade deals, dumping policies, and foreign-currency manipulation. I still have my lunchbox that I took to work every day, in my office. Great Northern shut down soon after I was sworn in as a member of Congress, because our foreign competitors don’t play by the same rules we do.”

“When China lowers the value of their currency, it’s the same as giving a subsidy to the Chinese paper industry. Essentially what the Chinese are doing by underselling paper is capturing the paper market for themselves. They were selling paper cheaper than we could actually make it in an attempt to manipulate markets so buyers favor their products.

“Now, if a Chinese company assessed at 30 percent wants to export $1 million worth of coated paper here, it has to pay $300,000 in tariffs to the U.S. Treasury. For companies assessed at 135 percent, the import fee would be $1.35 million for every $1 million in imports.

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Mike Michaud spends some time with veterans at the Bangor Memorial Day parade. Photo by Ramona du Houx

“The tariff levels the playing field. I’ll continue to work for a positive determination that makes the tariff permanent. The Commerce Department will issue a decision in September.”

Is the issue on the radar of the Obama administration?

“I’ve worked with Sen. Olympia Snowe to organize a joint, bipartisan, House-Senate letter to President Barack Obama, highlighting the need for his attention. We were able to get the signatures of more than 100 lawmakers on our letter, including Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Chellie Pingree.

“Our state’s paper mills and their employees can compete against the best in the world, but they cannot compete against nations that provide huge subsidies and other unfair advantages to their manufacturers.”

Recently the House passed two bills you strongly support: the National Manufacturing Strategy Act and the End the Trade Deficit Act. Why do you support these measures?

“Together they could create a national manufacturing strategy and would help address our nation’s trade deficit. They represent a good step forward for the future of manufacturing in our county. But we need to move beyond studies and commissions. One way that we could do this is by changing the model that we use to negotiate international trade agreements. This must be a part of our efforts, if we are going to have a complete national manufacturing strategy. Our businesses and workers deserve a level international playing field.”

Tell me how about your biomass bill?

“It’s basically a tax credit to extend the established biomass credits. It has support from all parties, from all areas of the country. What the legislation will do is infuse capital into manufacturing operations, so they can upgrade their equipment to be energy efficient, which saves them money and reduces our carbon footprint. It also helps our manufacturing base to be more competitive. According to the Forest and Paper Association, 50,000 jobs would be directly impacted from this legislation. It’s key to growth.

Veterans —

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U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki toured VA Togas with U.S. Reps. Michaud and Pingree. Courtesy photo
You chair the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health, and last spring you had
U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki tour VA Togas with you. Was his visit beneficial?

“I’ve actually had all four secretaries of the Veterans Administration here to tour Togas. I wanted the secretary to see first-hand the services that are being provided at the facility. We talked over issues pertinent to Maine, how best to serve Veterans in rural areas and how to improve services at our nursing homes.

“Our nursing home, Togas, had reimbursement problems stemming from a 2006 law passed under the Bush administration. As a direct result of his visit, the VA requested specific actuaries from Veterans’ Homes to look at ways to fix the problems. It was extremely important for the sectary to hear the concerns our veterans had.

“I told him about a program started in 2008 where rural healthcare providers can contract out to treat veterans. It was landmark legislation I’m proud to have been a part of. And he heard about our community-based outpatient clinic facility that is up and running in Bangor and is doing a great job taking care of veterans’ needs, so they don’t have to go to Togus. The facility is a one-stop shop for veterans, providing their entire healthcare needs, from counseling, prescriptions, and outpatient services.

“Secretary Shinseki told me he’s committed to expanding services for veterans in rural areas and to ending homelessness among the nation’s veterans. I believe his visit was important.”

Mike Michaud joined President Obama, veterans, caregivers, and other members of Congress at the White House last May for the signing of the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act. The act includes a bill Michaud authored, creating a new program to help caregivers of veterans. What’s included in the new act?

“Family and friends of wounded veterans often put their own lives on hold to care for their loved one. These caregivers step up each and every day to take care of veterans that sacrificed everything to defend our country. This new law finally establishes a coordinated program that will support their efforts and offer them some relief.

“I’ve heard so many stories from families and veterans, of people having to quit their jobs to take care of their loved one. A constituent had to quite her job to take care of her husband, because he suffers from PTSD, and she was worried that he might commit suicide. It’s wrong. This legislation addresses the problem by giving the VA the authority to authorize a stipend to a caregiver to stay with a veteran severely wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan.

“It also helps in training and education, by training a caregiver on how to specifically manage a Veteran with PTSD or someone with lost limbs.

“It’s important for a caregiver to stay with a veteran with PTSD while they receive medical treatment. Also, for the first time, caregivers will be able to travel with veterans who have to get treatments from hospitals far from their homes. The law reimburses these caregivers for hotel stays while their veteran undergoes treatment.

“It’s historic legislation. Until now, no legislation has dealt specifically with female veterans’ needs.

“The broader omnibus bill takes a number of other important steps to help our nation’s veterans, including enhancing health services for the 1.8 million women veterans, including maternity leave and care for newborns, for the fist time in history, and sexual harassment. It also expands mental health services for veterans, healthcare access for veterans in rural areas, and prohibits copayments for veterans who are catastrophically disabled.”

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In Bingham, this is of two new model healthcare clinics for veterans, which Michaud established with the VA. Each has state-of-the-art equipment to bring primary care to veterans in rural areas. They serve Jackman, Bingham, Greenville, and Dover-Foxcroft. photo by Ramona du Houx

How are you involved in the Wounded Warriors program?

“My office is now a part of the Wounded Warriors program, which was created to help veterans continue to serve in a different capacity from being on the front lines. It was established after 9/11 for veterans who have served 30 percent of their time on active duty.

“It’s a two-year program where a veteran works in my congressional office in DC or Maine and receives a stipend. Hopefully afterwards they will want to continue working. It’s a good opportunity for veterans that have served, to serve in a different light.”

The Health Care Act —

Some people wonder why you didn’t sign on to President Obama’s health care act when it was introduced.

“Maine was treated unfairly with Medicare/Medicaid payments, in the original bill. Medical providers told me that if the original legislation passed, 86 percent of healthcare providers in Maine would suffer. The funding formula would have hurt Maine.

“For example, Arkansas only has 17 percent using these services. The bill promotes quality health care for all, and that is great, so it encourages states to provide more health care with Medicare/Medicaid, up to 133 percent. So, Arkansas would have gotten a lot of help. But Maine is already over that goal, so it wouldn’t get any additional help.

In fact we were going to be penalized. Maine has the largest elderly population in the U.S., so we need Medicaid/Medicare more than other states. The original legislation would have made the state pay the federal government $41 million to help cover our elderly residents.

Maine has a small population, so insurance premiums are some of the highest in the nation, due to the lack of a competitive market. So, providers are not reimbursed at the same insurance rates if they use Medicaid/Medicare, which pays them 20 to 30 percent less. This causes a lot of cost shifting.

“We addressed some of these major issues, so Maine is not penalized with the bill. The final product will help the people of Maine and small businesses, with costs and efficiencies. It’s a historic step forward for health care in America.”

Michaud’s Accomplishments for Maine Veterans

• He helped pass a modern-day GI Bill that provides full, four-year college scholarships for our returning warriors.
• He coauthored a major portion of the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act.
• He led the effort to pass into law the largest investment in the VA in history — a $6.6 billion increase.
• He voted to pass cost-of-living increases for disabled veterans.
• He worked to pass increased funding for treatment of PTSD and traumatic brain injury.
• He passed the Home for Heroes Act in the House, a bill to provide shelter for homeless veterans and their families.
• He helped pass the Wounded Warriors Act, which improved outpatient care at military healthcare facilities.
• He got a veterans’ health care access point established in Houlton to treat veterans in the area.
• He helped get funding to build a new, larger community-based outpatient clinic for veterans in Bangor.
• He worked to get a new community-based outpatient clinic for the Lewiston-Auburn area.
• He worked with the VA to set up the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship, which pays full college tuition for the children of soldiers killed in active duty.