March 13, 2013

Hospital payment compromise elusive

Lawmakers and LePage make progress but not enough to get the governor to begin signing bills.

By Steve Mistler
State House Bureau

Republican Gov. Paul LePage and top Democratic lawmakers have found common ground on such key issues as debt payments to hospitals and Medicaid expansion. But the progress made Monday apparently wasn't enough for the governor to lift his veto decree.

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Senate Majority Leader Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Dresden

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

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Gov. Paul LePage addresses the Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Monday at the State House in Augusta. Republican Gov. Paul LePage and top Democratic lawmakers have found common ground on such key issues as debt payments to hospitals and Medicaid expansion. But the progress made Monday apparently wasn't enough for the governor to lift his veto decree.

Andy Molloy / Kennebec Journal

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A half-dozen bills lawmakers passed last week remained on LePage's desk Tuesday, awaiting action.

LePage was not available for comment, but Adrienne Bennett, his spokeswoman, said the governor had not changed his position on vetoing legislation or allowing some bills to go unsigned.

"We're not there yet," Bennett said. "However, it appears that the Democrats are moving closer to something that looks a lot like the governor's bill (to pay the hospital debt)."

Bennett also said the governor was no closer to issuing $105 million in voter-approved bonds.

Political tensions were ratcheted upward nearly two weeks ago, when LePage vowed to veto every bill until the Democratic-controlled Legislature endorsed his plan to repay $484 million in outstanding Medicaid reimbursement to the state's 39 hospitals.

The governor also refused to release the bonds, which require borrowing but have already been approved by Maine voters at referendum, until the state paid the hospitals.

Voters approved three bond issues totaling $64 million in November, on top of another $40 million approved in 2010. The borrowing was slated for a host of transportation, conservation and water and sewer infrastructure projects.

Bennett indicated that the counter-proposal released by Democrats Monday, just prior to a legislative hearing on LePage's hospital plan, wasn't enough to change the governor's position.

Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, the Senate majority leader, said the two sides took a step in the right direction Monday when Democrats offered a hospital debt plan and LePage indicated he'd be willing to concede expanding Medicaid to more low-income Mainers.

"I think the next steps will be telling," Goodall said. "The governor has a chance to lead and he should. He should release those bonds just as we, Democrats and Republicans, need to keep working and solving this issue and paying the hospitals."

Both parties appeared to be jockeying for credit Tuesday over paying back the hospitals.

The Maine Republican Party issued a release saying the Democrats' hospital plan, in a bill sponsored by Goodall, came up $81 million short. The Maine Democratic Party, meanwhile, circulated an online petition designed to pressure LePage to sign the voter-approved bonds.

There are significant differences between the governor's and Democrats' pay-back proposals. However, both plans have the same result: Make the hospitals whole -- and happy.

It's also in both parties' interest to settle the debt. Gordon Smith, the lead lobbyist for the Maine Medical Association, recently described the debt as an "albatross" for state lawmakers.

The wrangling over past and current efforts to pay the debt illustrates the hospitals' political clout. Hospitals wield influence as major employers who invest in economic development, while providing life-saving services, and state lawmakers have worked hard to stay in their good graces.

Along with the posturing, leaders of both parties signaled a willingness to compromise on the hospital plan. Rep. Kennetth Fredette, R-Newport, said during a radio interview that he was confident a consensus could be reached.

Goodall, the Senate Democrat, went a step further, saying he wasn't averse to a "hybrid" plan that would merge his proposal and the governor's.

"I look forward to sitting down with his staff, and hopefully him (LePage), on the solving this issue," he said. "We both share the same goal. We need to pay off the hospitals."

Also on Tuesday, the governor proposed amending his plan to address certain constitutional concerns raised by Democrats. Goodall said the amendment is a positive development.

As for the unsigned bills sitting on the governor's desk, Goodall said there's only so much the Legislature can do.

"With regards to vetoes and bills, we can't control what the governor does," he said.


Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

Twitter: @stevemistler


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