AUGUSTA – Health insurance — who gets it and whether the state can afford it — will be front and center at the State House this week when Gov. Paul LePage releases a plan to close a $120 million shortfall at the Department of Health and Human Services.

While the exact contents of the proposal are a closely guarded secret, LePage used his Saturday radio address to talk about one benefit he doesn’t think the state can afford to offer anymore.

It’s an expansion of the Medicaid program that dates back to 2002, when the state began offering health insurance to childless adults who meet certain income guidelines. Maine is one of 15 states to offer the benefit, LePage said in his address.

“Basically, this is free health care for 19,000 Mainers and in a two-year period, they have cost taxpayers $39.5 million in state dollars,” LePage said. “The fact is, we can no longer afford it.”

Democrats and advocates for the poor have argued that this is not the time to throw people off health care. With the federal health insurance program still a couple of years away, and since parts of it are being challenged in court, there are few options for coverage.

In general, Democrats say they want LePage to look outside of DHHS to help balance the DHHS budget. But that seems unlikely, given comments LePage recently made to a group of university heads where he told them they would have to compete for funding with Medicaid.

Also, at a chamber breakfast last month, he said he wants to begin random drug testing for welfare recipients.

And, in his Saturday address, LePage was clear.

“No administration wants to take away anything from anyone, but at the same time, as policymakers, we have to be held accountable for our spending and refrain from gimmicks to get us by,” he said.

The budget will likely be released today, with public hearings set for Dec. 14 and 15.

A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE?

Weeks after he began asking for a meeting with LePage, Rep. Andy O’Brien, D-Lincolnville, got his chance Saturday.

O’Brien wanted to talk to LePage about a comment he made more than a month ago about people who turn down jobs because they can make more money by staying home and collecting unemployment benefits. O’Brien, who’s had trouble landing a job himself, took umbrage and wanted to tell LePage that most people who are unemployed really do want to work.

He got that chance Saturday when LePage offered to meet with three unemployed people who were part of a march on the Blaine House organized by the Maine People’s Alliance. O’Brien didn’t volunteer to go in, but LePage administration officials tracked him down by cellphone and asked him to join the hour-plus meeting.

The invitation followed a couple of weeks of news stories, news releases, and a column in The Portland Press Herald that kept the story going long after it could have been put to bed.

After the Saturday meeting, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the administration will work harder in the future to communicate with lawmakers.

“We need to have a better dialogue here between folks in the dome,” she said.

TEACHER CERTIFICATION

At that same meeting, Bennett said LePage had a chance to explain an education proposal he’d like to advance, which she believes can forge common ground with at least some Democrats.

For months, LePage has said he wants better teachers in the classrooms. He suggested more training for current teachers and that he’s looking to change the teacher certification process.

In past speeches, LePage has said he wants people with real world experience to have an easier time becoming a teacher. Less emphasis on learning how to teach, and more focus on the particular subject matter.

While she didn’t get into specifics, Bennett said they want to make it easier for people to become teachers.

“You take a lot of classes you don’t really need,” she said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com