The head of the federal department that oversees Medicaid said she personally offered to send experts to Maine to help Gov. Paul LePage cut state spending within federal guidelines.

LePage has not accepted the offer.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said Wednesday during a U.S. Senate Finance Committee hearing that she had a conversation with LePage within the last two weeks about Maine’s effort to reduce its costs for MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

Sebelius was responding to a question from Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a committee member, who asked Sebelius what states like Maine could do to cut Medicaid costs while continuing to serve people who are now eligible. Federal health care law requires states to maintain current benefits, in many cases.

Sebelius said she gave LePage information about the types of changes the state is allowed to make immediately, including tighter eligibility for parents in the health insurance program. That change was included in the budget cuts considered by the Legislature on Thursday.

Sebelius also said she offered to send a team of federal officials to look at Maine’s other choices. The same offer has been made to other states.

LePage has proposed about $37 million in reductions to MaineCare coverage, starting in July. That would require special permission from Sebelius. But federal law limits such waivers to states that are experimenting with alternative coverage options.

“We did not have a lot of paper from the governor about what exactly was the proposal, but committed to doing whatever we could to look at … immediate changes in areas where they had administrative flexibility and … look at ways that hopefully we could help reduce the costs in categories where we don’t have a lot of flexibility,” Sebelius said to Snowe.

“We’re waiting to get some responsiveness” from LePage’s office, she said.

LePage was not available to comment on Sebelius’ offer Thursday, said Adrienne Bennett, his spokeswoman.

Bennett said in an email that LePage called Sebelius to ask for greater flexibility with the budget. She did not say why LePage has not accepted Sebelius’ offer to send a team to Maine.

“Gov. LePage appreciates the Secretary’s willingness to work with him and his administration in an effort to make Maine’s welfare programs affordable and sustainable,” Bennett said. “The Governor will receive direction from the Legislature once the (2012-13) budget is passed and at that time the governor will be ready and willing to go to Washington.”

Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, a member of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said the governor should welcome the help from federal officials.

“I think it would be poor judgment not to accept the offer. I imagine they would have great suggestions about cost containment and restructuring,” Hill said. “It seems to me that would have been a win-win.”

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind contributed to this report.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]