September 19, 2013

Maine Medicaid debate rolls on in battle of oversized checks

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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Gov. Paul LePage is interrupted by protester Paul Nickerson, dressed as Uncle Sam, during a news conference as LePage presents Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston with a check for $38 million Wednesday.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

“You can’t pick and choose who you cover for votes,” LePage said. “It’s time to put people over politics.”

The disabled Mainers referenced by LePage receive some Medicaid coverage but are waiting for additional services for which they qualify.

The waiting list is the subject of a court action filed May 28 that effectively compelled the LePage administration to cover qualified recipients. Lawmakers authorized $10.4 million in the state budget to draw down the waiting list, but more funds are needed. 

Later during the event, MPA activist Marie Pineo of Yarmouth told LePage that she was going to lose her health care coverage if LePage didn’t go along with expansion. Pineo held a letter from the state saying her coverage would expire Jan. 1, 2014.

“Isn’t health care a basic human right?” Pineo said. “Why should people die because of your politics?”

The governor asked Pineo if she had a job. She said she did. He told Pineo that she could still qualify for coverage through subsidies in the Affordable Care Act, that most of her insurance costs would be paid for. 

Pineo, surrounded by reporters after the event, later said that she wasn’t sure if she’d qualify for the subsidies. 

Expansion would broaden MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, to cover adults without children who earn under $15,856 a year. Eligibility would expire after three years, when federal reimbursements for the program are scheduled to decline from 100 percent to 90 percent, unless the Legislature takes additional action.

More than 15,000 low-income parents are expected to lose coverage in January, when changes to MaineCare take effect. An additional 10,500 adults with no dependent children and incomes less than $11,500 will lose coverage.

The 10,500 childless adults fall into a loophole in the Affordable Care Act that makes them ineligible for federal subsidies for private insurance even if they're not covered by Medicaid.

Democrats are hoping that the pending loss of MaineCare coverage for some Mainers will convince some Republican lawmakers to support the new proposal.

The event, although upstaged by the Medicaid debate, brought LePage full circle on the hospital debt issue. In 2010 he campaigned in front of Central Maine Medical Center, saying that repaying the debt would be a priority if he were elected. 

The debt stemmed from unpaid Medicaid reimbursement payments from the state to the hospitals.

The Medicaid debt began accumulating years before Gov. John Baldacci took office in 2003. It has been attributed to a payment system that didn't keep pace with hospitals' Medicaid claims to the state.

Baldacci and the Legislature made payments that sent $3.7 billion to hospitals over the last decade, but not enough to erase the debt.

The Legislature approved LePage’s debt payback plan this year. Since then the governor has linked the hospital debt to the Medicaid debate. During prepared remarks he called the hospital debt “welfare debt.”

“These payments to hospitals are not a windfall,” he said in prepared remarks. “It is welfare debt owed for over a decade that the state of Maine is finally making good on.”

Republicans had varying reactions to MPA's stunt. David Sorensen, the communications director for House minority leader Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, tweeted, "Typical. GOP pays off welfare debt despite D obstruction; shameless (MPA) jack*** makes scene for more welfare spending."

The wrinkle in Wednesday's staged event marked another chapter in the ongoing public clash between LePage and Democrats -- and another involving a big check. In May, moments after the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed the bill linking LePage's hospital payback plan to Medicaid expansion, LePage and several Republican lawmakers quickly gathered in the State House Hall of Flags in front of the media to veto the bill. Democrats had reserved the Hall of Flags for a ceremonial bill signing that included a check made out to Maine's hospitals, but LePage's veto upstaged the event. 

S. Donald Sussman, majority owner of MaineToday Media, which includes the Portland Press Herald, lists the alliance as one of 33 Maine organizations to which he has contributed.

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