June 26, 2013

Bill Nemitz: LePage win on Medicaid could be short-lived

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com

Maybe it's too soon, the temperature outside pushing 90 degrees and all, to talk about January.

Yet there House Speaker Mark Eves sat in the State House this week, doing just that.

"We're just not going to stop fighting to ensure 70,000 Mainers have health care," Eves said in a telephone interview Monday. "To that end, we're going to be bringing forward emergency legislation in January to accept these federal dollars."

(We now pause for the obligatory high-fives among Gov. Paul LePage and Republican lawmakers, who last week drove the final stake into Maine's plan to accept $350 million in federal Medicaid expansion funds over the next three years -- money that will now go to other states while those 70,000 needy Mainers limp along without health coverage.)

Much has been said in recent days about how leaders of the Legislature's Democratic majority a) blew this one, b) did everything humanly possible to get their Medicaid expansion proposal passed, or c) were doomed from the get-go in their effort to hitch Maine to the federal Affordable Care Act.

Should they have tied the Medicaid expansion, quid pro quo, to LePage's top priority of paying off Maine's $184 million debt to the state's hospitals?

And once they linked Medicaid and the hospitals, should the Dems have doubled down on their promise, "No Medicaid expansion, no hospital payment?"

And what about when LePage swatted that threat away by vetoing the whole deal and corralling just enough Republican lawmakers to thwart an override? Were the Dems nuts to split the two issues and watch helplessly as the hospital payment sailed to easy passage while the Medicaid bill, torched by a second LePage veto, went down in partisan flames?

Tough questions all. But they pale by comparison to one that has much more to do with people than politics:

What happens now?

"It's not something we're going to give up on," said Eves. "And the public needs to weigh in with their individual legislators."

He's got that right: In a poll of Maine voters last month by Critical Insights, 67 percent of the respondents said they favor accepting federal funds for Medicaid expansion, while only 23 percent said they don't.

And next year, as if any of us could forget, is an election year.

Already, signs of Republican jitters abound around this hot-button issue.

In the Senate, after all, it was Republican assistant minority leader Roger Katz of Augusta who proposed accepting the 100 percent federal expansion money at least for the next three years -- provided the Legislature votes on it again when the federal share begins its gradual descent to 90 percent.

Backing up Katz on that compromise were fellow Republican Sens. Patrick Flood of Winthrop and Tom Saviello of Wilton.

Over in the House, meanwhile, eight Republicans voted for the Medicaid expansion at one time or another as it wound through the legislative process. Had they all come together in the final vote, note the Dems, the House would have overridden LePage's veto.

Fast forward to next spring: LePage, politically toxic to all but his shrinking base (Next up: "Governor flips off Legislature during State of State address"), will be here, there and everywhere in his quest for a second term.

And if they're smart, Republican lawmakers running for re-election will be in none of those places as they try to distance themselves from the governor with the garbage mouth.

What better way to prove their independence than by lining up behind a Medicaid plan that two-thirds of the voters think is a pretty darned good idea in the first place?

(Continued on page 2)

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