Debates are supposed to force candidates to clarify their positions on the issues. Gov. LePage has used this year’s debates as an opportunity to create more confusion, especially on the issue of extending federally funded health care to up to 70,000 people through the MaineCare program.

In two debates, LePage insisted that his critics are wrong. Only 20,000 uninsured people would get coverage that is fully subsidized by the federal government, the governor said; the program would then be swamped by tens of thousands of others who would need the state to pay 40 percent of the cost.

LePage even said he had a letter from the federal government that proved his point, and he went as far as to bring a poster-size blow-up of the missive on stage in one televised debate, with a quote highlighted.

This was no improvised comment made in the heat of the moment. Le-Page was prepared, made his point repeatedly and came with a prop. But is he right?

No, he’s not.

NUMBERS DON’T ADD UP

No one can know for sure who would sign up for a program that does not currently exist. But the best estimates are that about 10,000 childless adults with incomes below the federal poverty line ($11,409 a year for an individual) would be eligible for the full federal match. So would 45,000 childless adults who earn up to 138 percent of poverty (up to $15,856).

The governor is correct that the federal government would pay only the 60 percent match for about 14,000 parents who lost their MaineCare coverage this year. But even paying 40 percent of the cost of covering that group, Maine would still come out ahead financially after expansion.

The nonpartisan Office of Fiscal and Program Review determined that expanding MaineCare to take advantage of the federal participation would actually save the state money, even without considering the benefits to health providers, communities and the currently uninsured state residents who would be healthier. This finding also does not take into account the economic activity that would come from spending $350 million of federal money in the state every year.

None of this is new. All of it was debated over the last two years, when five versions of the expansion bill hit the governor’s desk and all of them were vetoed. That’s what makes his latest analysis so troubling.

“Folks, we have a letter from the federal government,” LePage told the audience at the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce debate Oct. 8. “There’s a small class of people who qualify for the exemption: childless adults, about 20,000 people. The other 90,000 qualify for regular Medicaid.”

A week later he said, “Folks, along with myself, my staff and (Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner) Mary Mayhew have been trying to tell you that not everybody qualifies for the expansion,” he said, pulling out a blow-up of the letter.

“Now the point I’ve tried to make here is everybody says we are leaving money on the table. The fact of the matter is there is only about 20,000 people of the uninsured that can qualify for the 100 percent (reimbursement).”

But the letter the governor points to says nothing of the sort. A Jan. 15 letter from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services confirms that both groups of childless adults, an estimated 55,000 people, would be considered newly eligible and receive the full federal subsidy – 100 percent through 2016, and no less than 90 percent in future years.

HIGHLIGHT MISLEADING

The highlighted portion of the letter that LePage displayed did say that parents who had been dropped from MaineCare would not be eligible for the full subsidy – but there are 14,000 people in that group, not 90,000.

Where does the larger number come from? The governor doesn’t say, but it is consistent with the findings of the partisan Alexander Group, the Rhode Island-based company the LePage administration contracted to conduct a $1 million study of the state’s welfare programs, which later turned out to be shoddy work that was largely plagiarized.

Most candidates misspeak, exaggerate and pick the facts that suit their arguments. The governor’s apparently willful distortion around this key point of policy goes beyond the normal limits of campaign rhetoric. His debate performance shows that, despite his reputation as a straight shooter, he will fix the facts to fit his purely ideological position.

The tens of thousands of Mainers who are going without health care deserve better from their governor.