SALEM TOWNSHIP – Gov. Paul LePage and members of his Cabinet who appeared at a town hall meeting Wednesday night defended the administration’s plan to close a projected budget deficit by reducing Medicaid services.

LePage presented his plan at Mount Abram High School, where more than 100 people packed the cafeteria for a question-and-answer session that was part of LePage’s Capitol for a Day event in Franklin County.

Many of the residents asked what the governor is doing to curb welfare fraud, something they said could solve budget shortfalls.

LePage responded by saying that rampant fraud is among the major causes of the shortfalls. Maine must reform its assistance programs to stop fraud, he said, and reduce benefits that are much more generous than federal standards — a difference that attracts people who have exhausted their benefits in other states.

“We are trying to do things to make people go to work,” LePage said, referring to programs he is pushing to help move people from assistance to the workforce.

LePage reviewed highlights of his supplemental budget for the next 18 months, which seeks to close a projected $221 million deficit in the Department of Health and Human Services. He is proposing to reduce spending by ending MaineCare coverage — Maine’s version of Medicaid — for 65,000 people, including the poor, the elderly and children.

LePage used charts to show that there is not enough money to pay for the program’s benefits. “What I’m trying to do is to save as many people in the system with the money I’ve been given to pay the bills,” he said.

A woman from Strong told the governor that she knows plenty of people who rely on the benefit programs. She asked why the DHHS directs people to other agencies when they look for assistance.

LePage responded by tying the issue to confusion about benefit programs in general, saying it is part of the reforms he believes are needed to streamline the system.

The governor repeatedly steered questions back to his supplemental budget, pointing frequently to the row of charts behind his Cabinet members and referring to his push for reforms to the system. “We need to change the rules,” he said.

Two legislative committees began taking testimony Wednesday on LePage’s supplemental budget. About 140 people testified, in the first of three days of hearings.

Hundreds of people gathered at the State House for a rally to oppose the cuts, calling them shortsighted and hurtful to the most vulnerable in Maine.

LePage toured several businesses in Franklin County before the town hall meeting at Mount Abram High School.

He stopped at NotifyMD in Farmington, Poland Spring in Kingfield, Stratton Lumber in Eustis and Geneva Wood Fuels in Strong.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan M. Cover contributed to this report.

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer David Robinson can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:

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