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January 15

Bill Nemitz: LePage burned by own report on MaineCare

No fool, that Eliot Cutler. You see a piece of low-hanging fruit out there on the campaign trail, you pluck it and plaster your opponent with it.

“In 40 years of my working life, I’ve never seen before a case where a CEO or, for that matter, a governor, has paid a million dollars for a report that sets out as clearly as the Alexander report does why he ... should be fired,” Cutler, the independent candidate to replace Gov. Paul LePage, told the assembled media at his campaign headquarters in Portland on Tuesday morning.

He was talking about Part 1 of the Alexander Group’s soup-to-nuts study of Maine’s welfare system, also known as LePage’s new, $925,000 weapon (our tax dollars at work) in his administration’s never-ending war on Maine’s poor.

Specifically, Cutler set his sights on the claim by Gary Alexander and his not-quite-ready-for-prime-time band of conservative “consultants” that poverty in Maine will increase by about 30 percent between now and 2020. There’s no way Maine can afford to have all those people signing up for Medicaid (known in these parts as MaineCare) under the federal Affordable Care Act, they reason.

More on Alexander’s report – and his lackluster performance Tuesday afternoon before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee – in a minute.

First, let’s join Cutler in marveling at how numbers, if tossed around far and wide enough, can eventually boomerang and bite you in the behind.

Consider: LePage is entering the fourth and final year of his first term, locked in a nail-biter of a re-election campaign against Cutler and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.

If he were a successful governor thus far, the Big Guy would be hanging his hat proudly on how he’s turned Maine’s flagging economy around. How a rising tide of prosperity is lifting all boats – from the lowliest minimum-wage dinghies to the luxury yachts piloted by those overachieving, underappreciated job creators.

Instead, what do we get? Predictions of more poverty.

“The one contribution that this report has made is to show that Gov. LePage’s own policies are a failure and that he has no plan, no plan at all, to grow Maine’s economy into one that generates jobs instead of poverty,” said Cutler. “The governor has walked away from his own job of making Maine a better place to do business. By standing on this report, he has implicitly declared his own policies to be a failure and he’s given up on Maine’s future.”

Translation: What’s good for LePage’s campaign against expanding MaineCare (despite the feds picking up the whole tab for three years and no less than 90 percent after that), is not so good for his campaign to spend another four years in the Blaine House.

Chided Cutler, “Now Gov. LePage is telling us that instead of turning Maine around, we should plan on adding tens of thousands more people to the poverty rolls.”

Like any thinking person, of course, Cutler knows there’s a silver lining – or maybe it’s just a lighter shade of gray – to the dark cloud imported to Maine by the Rhode Island-based Alexander Group.

The truth is that Alexander’s gloom-and-doom prediction of a near-30-percent spike in Maine’s poverty, while a convenient cudgel against MaineCare expansion, conflicts dramatically with more reputable national projections. Both the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget, noted Cutler, foresee a 10 percent drop in poverty rates over the next decade.

Yet there Alexander sat Tuesday afternoon alongside Erik Randolph, his senior associate, and Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, insisting to the Health and Human Services Committee that their numbers are solid and that expanding MaineCare would be tantamount to sending Maine to hell in a hand basket.

My highlight moment from the hour-plus hearing came during the question-and-answer session, when Rep. Ann Dorney, D-Norridgewock, decried the dearth of data in the report showing how expanding MaineCare to those who earn less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level “might benefit the state, actually give us cost savings.”

Responded Randolph with a remarkably straight face, “We didn’t want to necessarily, if you will, make that report more complex than necessary.”

Of course they didn’t. It’s OK to bend over backward projecting poverty rates that have no roots in reality. But break a sweat showing how expanding MaineCare improves public health, which leads to higher workplace productivity, sharp declines in expensive emergency-room care and a host of other social and economic benefits? Who does that?

Real consultants who come in with no prescribed agenda, that’s who. Consultants with actual credentials, not resumes that read like a slow-moving train wreck.

(See: “Maine taxpayers should be wary of Alexander Group’s $1M contract,” by Eugene DePasquale. He’s the auditor general of Pennsylvania, where Alexander, in just two years as secretary of public welfare, cut 89,000 kids from the state’s health-care programs but cost taxpayers $7 million by botching a home care program.

But it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to realize that these guys aren’t real consultants. Just listen to what Randolph, who boasted to the committee that he’s taught economics at an unnamed community college for 17 years, had to say when pressed later by the media to explain how he came up with those eye-popping poverty projections.

“It’s a technical answer,” Randolph replied. “We had a team that included an actuary, we had a CPA, we had a former chief financial officer who ran a Medicaid program and we went about a task to identify those numbers that are real ... We spent a considerable amount of time pooling the data in a way that would reflect a true trend. And we used census data mostly for our report. And also what we did was we looked at the business cycle ... and we identified the peaks along the cycles and we pooled the data for those peaks and what that would do is that would eliminate any impact of a recession ...”

A technical answer? How about pure, unadulterated, self-serving gibberish? How about faxing this guy’s musings to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz the next time the Texas tea-partier needs fodder for a filibuster?

Perhaps the saddest part of this whole saga is that it’s only the beginning. Beyond its well-cooked book on MaineCare expansion, the Alexander Group’s sweetheart deal with the LePage administration calls for four more “deliverables” ranging from a “blueprint” for Maine’s welfare system to a “global reform” of MaineCare to an “enhancement” of Maine’s welfare-to-work program. And oh yes, they’re also going to come up with new ways to root out “fraud, waste and abuse in the system.”

It’s nothing short of music to the ears of Cutler and, for that matter, Michaud.

LePage, after all, has had nearly a full term to solve these and Lord knows how many other “problems” he’s long complained are destroying this state.

Yet even now, all the Big Guy can do is make them sound worse.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com





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