AUGUSTA – Gov. Paul LePage denounced the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday for delaying action on the state’s plan to eliminate health care benefits for about 33,000 low-income Mainers.

In a media statement and a video, LePage said the federal government is purposely stalling its ruling on the state’s application to amend its Medicaid coverage plan.

The governor’s broadside against U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is the latest development in a months-long dispute over the state Legislature’s decision to cut Medicaid programs before it received federal approval.

The cuts would save the state about $20 million in Medicaid payments. They were passed by Republicans, over the objections of Democratic lawmakers, to balance the state budget.

The LePage administration applied to make the changes Aug. 1 and requested approval by the federal DHHS by Sept. 1.

The agency, which had 90 days to respond, informed the administration in September that it was still reviewing the state’s application.

On Oct. 26, the agency sent a letter to the administration asking the state to clarify an inconsistency in its application and provide documentation that it consulted with tribal leaders about the cuts.

LePage said the response effectively means the federal government has another 90 days to weigh the application, and is playing politics by “resetting the clock.”

“I don’t care if the federal government is trying to wait out an election,” LePage said in his video statement. “Maine needs and deserves answers now.”

LePage said the federal government’s “inflexibility was out of control.” He said disabled Mainers are on a waiting list while “able-bodied” Mainers continue to receive Medicaid benefits.

The state’s proposed Medicaid changes would end benefits for an estimated 24,000 parents, 6,848 19- and 20-year-olds, and 1,825 Medicare recipients who also receive limited benefits under Medicaid, which operates in Maine as MaineCare.

Although the cuts appear to require a waiver of Medicaid standards that the federal DHHS has never granted to any state, the LePage administration contends that such waivers are no longer necessary because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June on the Affordable Care Act.

Others contest that interpretation of the court ruling and maintain that it doesn’t affect the type of waiver that would apply to Maine’s request.

LePage said in a letter to Sebelius that action is “necessary to allow Maine to re-balance our welfare programs, ensuring we can pay the bills to help the truly impoverished get back on their feet, support our vulnerable children, and clear the waiting lists for those who have true need of services.”

State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said in a written statement that it’s “shameful” that LePage and his “Republican allies” have pitted one “group of vulnerable people against another.”

“The governor has known since day one that these health care cuts were against federal law, yet he has pursued them anyway,” Rotundo said. “They should’ve never been included in the state budget in the first place.”

Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: stevemistler