Tuesday, December 10, 2013
WASHINGTON - The political fight over Maine's Medicaid programs continued Wednesday as Gov. Paul LePage accused U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of becoming "part of the jet-setting Washington culture that keeps people dependent on government handouts."
Gov. Paul LePage
Rep. Chellie Pingree
Pingree, in turn, refused to halt her vocal opposition to cutting a program that provides health care to low-income Mainers.
The dispute centers on whether about 27,000 Mainers should lose their Medicaid eligibility as part of an effort by LePage, with support from a divided Legislature, to balance the state's budget.
Critics of the cut say lower-income residents can ill afford to lose health care benefits. Conservatives argue that the state has to scale back the program if it wants to be fiscally responsible.
In an escalation of tension over the issue, LePage blasted Pingree for a letter she sent this week to President Obama's health secretary, Kathleen Sebelius. The governor said the letter was "careless in its facts" and failed to mention that the proposed cuts to Medicaid were approved by the Legislature.
"If you would like to attack me personally, fine, but it is irresponsible and a disservice to Maine people to try and hide the facts from a (Cabinet) secretary," LePage, a Republican, wrote Wednesday in a letter to Pingree, a Democrat.
Pingree responded Wednesday afternoon that she is representing the tens of thousands of Mainers who stand to lose their health coverage through Medicaid if the cuts are enacted.
"I didn't mean to be in a personal dispute with the governor but I'm not going to back down on my opinion on this," Pingree said in an interview.
On Monday, Pingree wrote a letter to Sebelius, urging her and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to review Maine's plan to remove some residents from MaineCare, the state's Medicaid program. Pingree opposes the cuts.
The dispute lies in differing interpretations of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last month on the Affordable Care Act, Obama's landmark health care law. It also underscores how deeply partisan the debate over the law continues to be, despite the court ruling largely upholding it.
The LePage administration and Maine Attorney General William Schneider argue that the ruling means Maine no longer needs a special waiver from the DHHS to enact cuts to Medicaid that were built into the state budget.
The DHHS has never issued a "maintenance of effort waiver" to a state to scale back a Medicaid program, and Maine's application for one has been widely viewed as a long shot.
On Tuesday, Sebelius sent a letter to all 50 governors that did not specifically mention the waiver issue. She wrote that the court clearly said the federal government could not impose severe financial penalties on states that refuse to expand Medicaid, as required by the controversial law. But she said "the court's decision did not affect other provisions of the law."
A spokesman for the DHHS declined to comment on or clarify the waiver issue on Wednesday. But the non-specific phrase about "other provisions of the law" was enough for Pingree and other critics of the proposed Medicaid cuts to declare that Maine still needs a waiver.
"We do think that her statement last night clarifies the issue," Pingree said.
Neither LePage's nor Schneider's offices commented Wednesday on Sebelius' letter.
Pingree is married to financier S. Donald Sussman, a contributor to Democratic and charitable causes and the majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which owns the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and other media outlets in Maine.
The waiver has been an issue in Maine for months, since LePage and Republican lawmakers approved changes to the eligibility requirements for MaineCare as a way to balance the state budget.
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