Sandwiched between two long periods serving patients, Dr. Jane Pringle spent six years at disability insurance giant Unum in Portland, learning a lot about how medical insurance rates are impacted by errors, overpayments and government programs.
“Without that six years of Unum experience I don’t think I would feel adequately equipped to go into the Legislature,” said Pringle, elected in November to serve as the state representative for House District 111 in Windham, formerly held by Gary Plummer. “Unum was a life-changing experience for me. Medicine teaches you about diagnosis and treatment but it doesn’t teach you about systems. It doesn’t teach you about how to lead people and make things happen.”
Following the stint at Unum, Pringle returned to serving patients, as the head of the medical clinics at Maine Medical Center.
“I felt I had learned a lot of skills and I felt frustrated about where medicine was going and I had some energy to come back and see if I could improve where health care was going,” she said.
What she found after she resumed work at the clinics in 2000 was a broken system where indigent patients were coming in with serious issues that could have been prevented with earlier intervention. She led the clinics until July 2011, when she took a diminished role working part time in the program, teaching residents and taking care of a small pool of challenging patients.
After 41 years as a doctor, Pringle retired in early December to take on her new role in the Legislature. It’ll be her experience that will guide her, as she heads to the State House with a global view of the health care system, and plenty of ideas on how to fix it.
“I worked in health care and insurance, know how they work, but I don’t know how the Legislature works, or how to get things done, so I feel like I’ve started on a new venture with a very steep learning curve,” she said. “But I have had a lot of life and work experience, which hopefully will give me the tools how to work with others.”
Pringle grew up in Ohio and New York, but her mother, who went to nursing school in Boston, got married and moved away, was from the Deering section of Portland.
Every summer, the family would return to the Higgins Beach section of Scarborough to visit family. It was during those visits that Pringle and her three brothers fell in love with Maine. Each of her siblings now owns a home in Maine, and three live in the state year-round.
“Maine was a great place for us to come, and my mother was proud to be from Maine and I think she ingrained in us a love for Maine,” Pringle said.
Pringle went to Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and became interested in medicine while working at a lab at Cornell Medical College, where her father taught.
“I was going to be a school guidance counselor, that was going to be my career path. And then in college, I thought well, if I’m going to be a guidance counselor I should do different kinds of jobs so I can learn about them,” she said. “And my dad had need of a lab tech for the summer so I worked in the lab and met a lot of people who love science. So I went back to college in my sophomore year and rethought about my career path and decided to take pre-med.”
After college, Pringle entered Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, where she received her training to become a general internist, which is a primary care doctor for adults. It was there she met her future husband, James Pringle.
“He and I met the night before I started medical school at a party to celebrate the start of medical school. We started dating a short while later and got married about halfway through my medical schooling,” she said.
The Pringles’ route to Maine went through Montreal, where James took part in a urology fellowship and Jane finished her residency requirements to become a doctor. With their education complete, the Pringles had to choose where to live.
“We thought about going back to Cleveland and staying in academic medicine and we thought about going to western Pennsylvania, where my husband’s small hometown was,” Pringle said. “But I also encouraged Jim that we look at Maine because Maine, I knew, had a good teaching hospital, it had a residency program and my dad, who taught at Cornell Medical School, knew a lot of the docs here. And when we came here to visit there was a urologist who was looking for a partner and he offered Jim a job. So we ended up coming to Maine and have been here since 1975.”
The Pringles lived in Portland for four years and moved to a home near the North Gorham Dam on Windham Center Road in 1979. The home has several acres of fields where the family, including children Abigail, Dwight and Rachel, raised cattle and several horses. In recent years, the hillside portion of the farm has served as a vineyard since James Pringle became inspired to grow grapes after a visit to the Bordeaux region of France in 2000.
In 1976, Pringle started practicing medicine at the Ervin A. Center Memorial Clinic Hospital in Steep Falls. She lived in Portland at the time and drove the 45 minutes to and from Steep Falls two days a week.
Within six months, Pringle, who was also raising her children, accepted a half-time job at Maine Medical Center in the clinics, where she worked until 1983.
“Maine Medical Center has had clinics since I think the 1890s. There’s quite a history of Maine Med being a nonprofit and providing care for the indigent,” she said. “And the clinics were often staffed by community doctors who came in and gave pro-bono free care to people who didn’t have health insurance.”
In 1983, Pringle went into private practice as a partner at Portland Internal Medicine. She stayed active at Maine Medical Center’s clinics during her years as a private practitioner, also serving as a teacher to future doctors in residency programs.
In 1993, Pringle switched gears and went to work for Unum in Portland as the insurance company’s medical director.
“Unum found that they were experiencing a significant element of fraud and they didn’t have enough medical expertise, they felt they needed more people,” Pringle said. “The claims specialists were good at identifying there’s something not right about a claim, and they had a lot of legal and vocational resources but they didn’t have enough medical [expertise], so they were actively recruiting.”
Pringle, who has never held political office, was inspired to run while watching the Republican presidential primary debates, especially the parts where the presidential hopefuls would discuss Pringle’s bailiwick, health care.
“I watched every one of them up there say they were going to repeal the Affordable Care Act and let the free market fix the system, and I got livid,” Pringle said. “I woke up in the middle of the night thinking this country is ignorant, stupid and going down the drain. And I remembered my good ol’ mother who used to say, ‘This is democracy, babes, and if you don’t get up and do something about it, it’ll be your fault, too.’”
So, Pringle got up and did something. She ran for the Legislature, hoping to use her years in the health care system, as both doctor and insurance expert, to help improve the system. She went door-to-door campaigning and said she found many Windham residents who shared her desire to overhaul the health care system, agreeing with her belief that a universal health care system is the best answer.
Pringle said America spends $15,000 per year per person on health costs. France, which has universal health coverage, spends $12,000. Whereas America is ranked 27th in a list of most healthy countries, France ranks first. She says France, since its citizens are all covered, experiences lower costs per person, and fewer fatalities from curable conditions, since people get treated early on.
“Universal health coverage is the answer, that’s why I’m doing this,” Pringle said of her run for the Legislature.
By insuring everyone, Pringle said, tax dollars that are being wasted under what she describes as an inefficient system can be spent more wisely.
“When we provide crisis care, that’s the most expensive care. For people who don’t have insurance and no money for primary care, they wait until they’re in crisis to go to the emergency room because the public nonprofit hospitals are required to take care of everybody who shows up at their door,” Pringle said. “So Maine Med provided $38 million of free care last year. Well, somebody paid for it. Who? Well, the rest of us who do have insurance paid for it in higher and higher and higher premiums. And we’re paying for it at the more expensive end.”
With her network of contacts in the health care industry, Pringle’s goal is to make sure Maine implements the Medicaid expansion and Affordable Care Act. She said “the states that don’t choose to expand Medicaid could end up with people uninsured.”
Pringle was hoping to serve on one of the two joint standing committees that will deal with health care. In late December she was chosen to sit on the Insurance and Financial Services committee.
“I am very pleased with my assignment,” Pringle said. “This group will be working closely with the Health and Human Services committee to help Maine implement the best system to provide health insurance for everyone in the state.”
Pringle sees herself as optimistic, saying improving the lot of the most needy in society will lift everyone.
“When I saw the number of people who came to the polls and I look at how many new legislators there are, I’m not the only one who woke up and said, ‘Egad, if I don’t get involved where are we going?’ Pringle said. “And that gives me faith.”
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series highlighting Windham’s new state representatives, Tom Tyler and Jane Pringle.