Gov. LePage won his battle against Obamacare last week, successfully rejecting an estimated $350 million in federal funds for Maine over the next three years, which would have extended health insurance to as many as 70,000 people.
The governor exerted his will over bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate, using his veto pen and his hold over Republican legislators to make Maine the only state in New England to opt out of the federal program that Maine taxpayers will still have to help fund.
The victory will make him the toast of the national tea party circuit, especially since other conservative governors put their rhetoric aside and took the money figuring it was best for the people of their states. But what will this “win” do for Maine?
It will not help balance the state budget. Thanks to an amendment by Sen. Roger Katz, the assistant Republican leader, the bill would have put Maine in the program for only three years, while the federal government paid 100 percent of the cost.
Then it would have sunset, at which point the Legislature and governor could have decided if Maine should recommit, sharing the costs, with the federal government paying $9 to every $1 from the state.
BAD FOR HOSPITALS
The governor’s victory will not help the state’s economy, either. The governor described the program as “welfare,” conjuring an image of government aid going to undeserving “takers” who sap valuable resources from the private sector. But that’s not the case, and the state’s hospitals knew it.
Maine’s hospitals, which are some of our biggest employers, are also the biggest receivers of Medicaid funds, known here as MaineCare. That money is not “welfare” — it goes to doctors, nurses and a wide range of medical professionals and support staff who take care of people when they are sick.
Refusing the federal money does not make those illnesses go away. People without health insurance still get sick, and the hospitals know this better than anyone. Treating them requires charity care — $190 million in 2011 — in addition to billings that get written off as bad debt.
Unfortunately, the hospitals were slow to speak out on this issue, probably not wanting to upset the governor while he campaigned to raise $180 million in revenue bonds to pay them for the past MaineCare services. With a stronger stand by the hospitals, they might have received payment for the overdue debt and help paying for future costs. Now they will have to cover the costs of treating the uninsured themselves.
Republican lawmakers still had a chance to change course and accept the money as late as Wednesday afternoon.
It would have taken only three Republican House members to change their votes and override the governor’s veto, but he and Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew lobbied them hard, and kept them all on board.
Democrats will also have to answer for their failed strategy of trying to play hardball with the Republicans and then backing down. Party leaders insisted that there would be no hospital repayment without a Medicaid expansion.
Then after failing to pass the combined bill over a veto, they gave Le- Page exactly the hospital bill he wanted and tried to pass the Medicaid bill on its own.
By that time, the Legislature had become so polarized that the Democrats were unable to achieve the bipartisan support they would have needed. If they weren’t planning to stand firm on the hospital repayment bill, the Democrats shouldn’t have tried to use it for leverage.
But maybe no strategy would have worked when the governor was so intent on defeating a measure that would have helped so many people. People with health insurance live longer, healthier, more productive lives. As many as 70,000 Mainers will have to do without coverage, and we all will pay the price.
Gov. LePage won this fight. But Maine lost.