December 16, 2012

Dan Demeritt: Hospital debt, business climate, and a frosty governor to boot

LePage isn't going to make any political hay by refusing to meet with Democratic legislators.

Chris Rose of WCSH 6 was there with a live report for the noon broadcast. Crews from rival television stations, MPBN, the Associated Press and print reporters covering the campaign for governor were on hand too.

There may have been a Democratic Party tracker there as well, but I never paid much attention to the kid with the camcorder.

It was the LePage for Governor 2010 hospital debt rallies, a campaign event staged simultaneously at five hospitals across the state to tell the story of how unpaid bills to Maine's hospitals were costing communities jobs and local investment.

The rallies were the political equivalent of a home run. Mixed sports metaphors aside, the news I learned on the walk back to the car was the true knock-out punch of the campaign.

Forbes Magazine had proclaimed that Maine was the worst state in the country for doing business. The news could not have been worse for Democrat Libby Mitchell, whose service in Augusta made her politically responsible for Maine's last place finish on the Forbes list.

It was not fair to Sen. Mitchell and her long service to Maine. But it was easy politics and we made the most of it.

Both hospital debt and the Forbes list were back in the news last week as Gov. LePage approaches the halfway point of his first term. And on both counts, not an inch of tangible political progress has been made.

There has been actual progress, but it is too complicated or just not good enough to sell politically.

First we consider the complicated.

For years Maine used a Prospective Interim Payment System, known as PIPs, to pay hospitals for services provided to MaineCare recipients. Under PIPs, the state would estimate the annual bill due a hospital and make 52 payments over the course of the year. The state would then settle up with the hospital at the end of the year based on actual usage.

As MaineCare usage expanded, the PIPs payments did not keep pace with the growth and, to balance its own budget, the state stopped making it reconciliation payments at the end of the year. Over several years the debt ballooned to the $450 million owed today.

Over the last two years, LePage and the Legislature have kept pace with the accruing debt, paying back about $248 million in the governor's first supplemental budget and making the investments necessary to transition into a pay-as-you-go system that will stop additional debt from adding up.

Great progress, but it will be an impossible political sell.

The $450 million still due the hospitals going back to 2009 is what would matter in a political campaign.

The Maine Hospital Association is highlighting this debt with newspaper ads featuring a 4-year-old boy celebrating his birthday while the hospital where he was born still waits payment for the delivery.

Cute ad. And far more respectful than what we will see from the governor's political opponents in two years if the debt to hospitals is still outstanding.

Now we turn to the not good enough.

For the third year in a row Maine ranks 50th on Forbes list of best places to do business. Maine's business climate is not appreciably better than it was two years ago. LePage agrees.

In a statement this week on the new Forbes list, LePage said, "We will continue to be on the bottom of the barrel until we make structural changes."

I agree with the governor and compliment his candor. But he loses me in a sentence that follows suggesting, "We've got to get serious about lowering energy costs, improving education and paying our bills."

Seriously addressing our state's problems starts with addressing each other.

It is the middle of December and LePage still has not met with the Democratic leaders in the Legislature. Seriously.

LePage is steadfast in his beliefs and the importance of his mission. But he also has zero tolerance for dissent and very little willingness to consider competing points of view.

It is a leadership style best understood by watching Jack Nicholson's portrayal of Col. Jessup on the witness stand at the end of "A Few Good Men."

When you run a business or, like Col. Jessup, eat breakfast 300 yards away from 4,000 Cubans trained to kill you, using the authority that comes with position can be an extremely effective leadership approach.

But inspiration and collaboration are what is needed in our system of government. Especially when a Republican governor has to work with a Legislature controlled by near-veto-proof Democratic majorities in both chambers.

Before Christmas, Democrats in the Legislature are going to unveil a list of policy priorities for the 126th Legislature. There will be items in that list that could lead to political compromise and progress for Maine.

It should be worth a meeting.

Dan Demeritt is a Republican political consultant and public relations specialist. He is a former campaign aide and communications director for Gov. Paul LePage. He can be contacted at:

dan@win207.com

Twitter: @demerittdan

 

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