Janet Mills

Commencement Address at the University of New England – May 18, 2019

Janet Mills
May 18, 2019— Portland, Maine
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Thank you President Herbert, faculty, staff, parents, family, friends and University of New England graduates of 2019. I'm so honored to receive this degree and honored to address you on the occasion of your commencement.

To the 1880 students, including 524 undergraduates, 888 graduate and 468 doctoral students receiving their degrees today, I welcome you to commencement, welcome you to our state if you haven't been here before or if you're coming back, and congratulations on your accomplishments.

You graduates come from 53 states and territories in the United States, 12 nations including, South Sudan, Nigeria, Australia, China, South Korea, Canada, Spain, Kuwait, Israel and Japan, the home country of Kevin Yoshihara, who graduates today, all the way from Tokyo. Hello, Kevin.

Some of you come from small Maine towns like Chesterville—suburb of Farmington, as you know—Willett, Dryden, Clinton, Patton and Deer Isle, home of my ancestors and my grandfather.

Some of you have studied at UNE's classic New England college campus here in Portland. Some of you studied at the estuary of the Saco River and the Atlantic Ocean on the Biddeford campus. And some studied remotely from your home. And some of you had the opportunity these last five years to study on UNE's innovative campus in Tangier, Morocco.

I'll say one thing—I'm pretty sure none of you got here by pretending to be on somebody's non-existent crew team. Your parents didn't make those headlines. You got here on merit. You stayed here by virtue of hard work, and you're graduating on the basis of your own merit and hard work. So, congratulations.

Many of you have overcome some significant challenges to get to this point. You know, as stepmother to five adult daughters and a proud grandmother of five kids, I am in awe of your classmates like Lindsey Good and Mansoor Shafqat, who completed their degrees while becoming new parents this year—unbelievable. I'm also inspired by David Coulter, who completed his doctoral dissertation proposal by candlelight during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. And Sam Wood, who decided to become a doctor after he himself was diagnosed with chronic disease at age 17. And of another one of your classmates, who told me her story but not her name, who was diagnosed with cancer in her sophomore year but who is now pursuing a career in cancer research.

Today we honor them and all of you and your hard work, your achievements, the commitments of your family and your future.

I sat where you did at another campus several decades ago, my hair crushed by bobby pins, wearing a musty-smelling hat, the weight of my future on my shoulders as much as my borrowed gown. But regardless of where I am today, I look out and I see my face among your faces—my face of some years ago—and the shadows of my friends and parents in their places, my youth within your hearts.

One thing I believe I learned during that time, more than anything else, is that one's career—one's future—is never etched in stone, that life is not a straight line, and that to a great extent life is what you make it.

My life has taken some pretty interesting turns and unexpected directions. I've taken risks, encountered detours and distractions. I married a widower with five daughters, ages four to sixteen. As a professional elected district attorney, I took on a family of five girls; as a career woman. It was probably the least rational thing a person ever did in my position, but it was the best thing I ever did, too, and I learned so much about love and life from my family.

Those curves and detours made my life all the richer. Each new direction has brought anxiety and self-doubt, the inevitable companions of change, but each experience contributed to who I am today, and those twists and turns have made me, I think, a better person.

Well, your future is perhaps not as uncertain as mine was then, your goals perhaps more pronounced. I'm sure that soon if you have not already you will reach another critical milestone of adulthood—calling to make doctor's appointments for yourself and your family. I hope that on the other end of that call you will encounter kindness and compassion and affordable help from someone you can trust—but it's possible you may not.

When you are at your most vulnerable and you are desperate for help, when you're the least able to advocate on your own behalf, you may have to confront impassable mountains of health insurance forms, of deductibles and co-pays and high prescription drug costs while pleading for the health care coverage you or your loved one needs.

Walter Cronkite once said, quote, "America's health care system is neither healthy nor caring nor a system." Still true.

America's health care system is not working when a mother like Debbie from Grand Isle, Maine, worries about the skyrocketing costs of insulin for her two sons, both of whom have type 1 diabetes. She wrote me recently to plea for help for one of her sons, and she said, "I worried that the time is approaching when he'll have to get off our insurance. I'm so afraid he'll have to ration his insulin or much worse, go without."

Debbie's not alone in facing skyrocketing costs. According to the United States Senate Finance Committee, one of the leading manufacturers of insulin, increased its insulin price from $35 to $234—a 585% increase between 2001 and 2005. No explanation.

America's health care system is not working when a small business owner from Kittery struggles to find affordable health care for their employees. As this business owner told me, quote, "This is causing a lot of stress and anxiety and could possibly bankrupt people if they experience a serious injury. They'll be forced to become reliant on the state for care, only after their savings and homes are liquidated. That's not a good plan for the future."

America's health care system did not work well when my husband Stan had a stroke which left him, a proud athlete and father of five, debilitated and demoralized, and left me, his wife and caretaker and advocate, frustrated, sad and angry. We were lucky—at least we had insurance—but the effort it took to get him care, to deal with the co-pays, deductibles, denials, drug costs—was a battle we waged every day until he was taken from us five years ago. But it's a battle that millions of families across this country fight today, many with fewer resources or advantages than I had.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, quote, "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and most inhumane."

Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine and technology and innovation, and the advocacy of compassionate Americans, we've made such important strides in access to health care. And I'm proud to say that as of today, more than 20,000 more Maine people have newly enrolled in health care coverage under Medicaid expansion approved by the voters in 2017, implemented by my administration this January.

For these people, healthcare coverage has the power to change their lives and even save their lives. Now they can see a healthcare provider, they can receive preventive care, they can obtain critical prescription medication and much more. Now they can stay healthy. They can work, they can care for their families.

We've also hired dozens of public health nurses to restore Maine's public health infrastructure, and we've enshrined Affordable Care Act protections for pre-existing conditions, for instance, into state law. And we've made significant efforts towards addressing the opioid crisis by expanding access to treatment.

While these are all important steps in ensuring affordable, accessible health care for every Mainer, every small business and every family, these steps don't end the inequality and injustice in health care that is still prevalent in our state and in our nation.

Maine is still an expensive place to buy health insurance, with an aging, small population spread out over a largely rural state. According to the 25th annual Measures of Growth report, nearly 18 percent of our income—18 percent of all the money we spend—is on health care, a full percentage higher than the national average. We face crippling shortages in skilled workers across the health care spectrum, including dentists, doctors, mental health care providers and nurses. Hospitals bear the large burden of uncompensated care, and small businesses who would like to expand are held back by ever-growing health insurance costs.

Clearly we have much, much more work to do—and that's where you all come in. The University of New England is at the heart of our solution to these long-term problems. UNE is the number one educator of health care professionals in Maine and it annually contributes more than $1 billion to our state's economy.

Many of you graduates here today majored in applied exercise science, athletic training, dental hygiene, nursing, nurse anesthesia, nutrition, occupational therapy, physical therapy, physician assistants, public health, social work, health wellness and occupational studies, pharmacy, dental medicine and osteopathic medicine—the very professions waiting for you to step into the roles which our economy, our families, our communities are desperate to fill right here in Maine.

And importantly, because of UNE's innovative focus on interprofessional education, you are team ready—that is, ready to be a full member of a health care team that also includes the patient and their families, their loved ones.

Now for our other graduates who didn't major in health care, you don't have to be a doctor to matter. As a former French major who became a lawyer and a politician, I say it's not too late—you could be a doctor still. I was a psychiatric aide in a hospital in Boston one year.

I am far from a medical professional but my life, too, has been irrevocably changed by health care. There is no industry or occupation that does not feel the effects of health care and healthcare policies. The teachers graduating today will encounter hungry children in their classrooms, kids with toothaches and undiagnosed illnesses and an inability to learn because of that.

You who majored in environmental studies or marine science or biology—you will tackle a planet that is under the siege of climate change. According to the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the increases in climate-change-induced ozone will lead to nearly 15,000 cases of serious respiratory illness by 2020, at a cost of 36 million dollars.

You who are business majors will address health-related costs to business that are impeding the bottom line.

And our researchers will grapple with new and deadlier disease and the power of emergent technologies to protect the health and safety of people the world over. This research is critical to the preservation of our freedoms.

Author George Lakoff wrote, quote, "If you have cancer and you don't have healthcare you're not free. If you're in a car accident and you suffer multiple injuries and don't have health care, you're not free. If you break your leg and don't have access to health care and cannot get it set, you're not free."

As you leave here and lend your talents to the pursuit of a cleaner planet, a stronger economy, affordable health care or increased educational opportunity, you will make our world more free.

You have all worked hard to get to this day, but your work is far from over. Our state, our nation and our world need you. We need your talents, your passion, your dedication to creating a brighter, fairer future.

And as debates over the conscience of our country and the destiny of our democracy ignite, please raise your voices, too. Your generation is already building a world I could never have dreamed of decades ago. You have a chance to do the same for those that come after you, so that they may have good health, safety and endless opportunity.

So I'm entering a new phase in my life as your governor, as are you as graduates of UNE. I hope that we both leave a cleaner planet, a good economy, affordable health care, educational opportunity and a lot of love for each other.

And I hope that whether you are from here, whether you're from another state or from another country, whether you intend to leave and come back or not leave at all, I hope your future includes the great state of Maine, that you share my passion for this place and all of its people. There's a world of opportunity right here and we want you and we need you here. If you leave, I will wish you well, and when you come back I'll be there to say, welcome home and thanks for all you do.

Thank you and congratulations from the great state of Maine.