May 16, 2013

Maine Voices: Hospital-debt shenanigans expose game player, and it's not a Democrat

Gov. LePage conveniently forgets a predecessor's work and labels Medicaid as 'welfare.'

By John Richardson

BRUNSWICK - In 2006, I published an op-ed piece that stated that for three administrations -- two under an independent and one under a Republican -- state government refused to pay hospitals back payments that were due them.

click image to enlarge

Senate President Justin Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves confer March 11 after unveiling a plan to combine a decision on Medicaid expansion with a proposal to pay hospital debt. Gov. LePage has said that the plan is an effort to link disparate issues.

2013 Kennebec Journal File Photo/Andy Molloy

That was bad for local hospitals, all of which are nonprofit and many of which are small, community-supported organizations and the life center of health care for their regions.

It was also bad for patients, who rely on continued coverage of Medicaid and Medicare.

And the trickle-down impact of unpaid debts to hospitals goes even further, affecting the premiums we all pay for health insurance, as hospitals have to increase charges to cover unpaid debts and charity care.

Gov. Baldacci inherited 11 years of unpaid hospital debts on his first day in office in 2006. With a structural gap at that time of $1.2 billion, demands for increased school funding and many other legitimate and pressing needs, Gov. Baldacci might have been forgiven if he had let the unpaid debts go unpaid a little longer.

Instead of taking the easy route of blaming the previous administrations, he led the way by putting the state on a path to pay off these debts. In 2006, we moved from 11 years in arrears to less than two years of back due debt.

Gov. Baldacci accomplished most of this rather quietly, as is his fashion. But it is the time of year for political accusations, and so it is not a surprise to hear Gov. LePage's newest claim: that the hospital settlement could have been accomplished long ago.

But how should this be done? Maine is a small state. We elect political leaders to solve our problems, not to make things worse. Since Gov. LePage has been in office, he has insulted President Obama, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, teachers, various women's groups, organized labor, gays and lesbians and now those who need health-care coverage. Have I missed anyone?

Now the Democratic leadership is feeling his wrath. Ironically, the governor complains that the speaker of the House is playing a game. He asserts that the speaker is tying different issues together, specifically that he is tying the hospital debt to "welfare" expansion.

It's ironic that the governor won't sign legislation or release bond monies for infrastructure projects that would inject $700 million into Maine's economy until the hospital debt is paid. So, who's playing games here?

Like Gov. LePage, I'm a Franco. My grandfather Levi St. Pierre was born in Orono. My grandmother attended the Farmington Normal School, now the University of Maine at Farmington, to become a teacher. They, too, were frugal and religiously saved their money.

But not all of our extended family was as lucky as my grandparents.

Some worked in the woods, and their bodies simply wore out long before they could save enough to care for themselves. Those same Franco-Americans reluctantly sought benefits from Medicaid to treat their battered bodies.

We all pay for Medicaid in the event we need it. It's demeaning to call Medicaid "welfare."

Let my Franco-American grandfather offer some advice to resolve this hospital debt dispute. "Fermez la bouche!" Let's stop complaining. Instead, let's do something constructive about the hospital debt. The governor could start by meeting with Democratic legislative leadership. He could be a leader himself and look for common ground.  

My grandfather would say, "Expand Medicaid." Accept the federal government funding to increase Medicaid coverage in this state. Even if the funding lasts only three years, the citizens of this state will be healthier and happier.

And, I promise, our Franco-American citizens will save even more money because the cost of hospital bad debt and charity care we pay will be reduced.

John Richardson of Brunswick is an attorney with Moncure Barnicle in Topsham, a member of the Brunswick Town Council and former Democratic speaker of the Maine House.

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