July 19, 2011

LePage vows new effort to cut MaineCare

BY MAL LEARY, Capitol News Service

AUGUSTA -- Gov. Paul LePage says he will push for a significant change in Maine's version of the Medicaid program, MaineCare, by reducing eligibility to the level in place in most states.

Paul LePage
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Gov. Paul LePage


Opponents say the move would throw about 30,000 Mainers off the program.

"This is what the level is in 47 other states," LePage said in an interview. "We should not be more generous than these other states; but we are, and we have been, and it needs to stop."

He said he is worried that, if the state continues to offer "richer" benefits than other states, there would be a risk that people would move to Maine to get those better benefits.

He also said reducing eligibility levels for childless adults would not have the effect on seniors that opponents have charged; an administration study found the change would affect young Mainers most.

"The average age of ... childless adults in the state of Maine, the average age is 34, predominately male and working," LePage said. "That's my problem. That's what we want to fix."

LePage acknowledged he had tried to make the change in the two-year state budget, but the Appropriations Committee rejected it.

He said he would make the proposal again because he believes the state cannot provide better benefits than other states.

"We're going to go back at it in January," he said. "We are going to keep going at it."

LePage said the new state health insurance law has provisions to make health insurance more affordable, and he believes many of those who are between the current 200 percent of poverty level and 133 percent can help pay for their own insurance coverage.

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the lead Democrat on the committee, disagrees.

She said the 133 percent level is $14,484 for a single adult. For a family of four, it is $29,726.

She said families and individuals at those income levels simply can't afford health insurance at current rates.

"The more health care we take away from people, the more those costs are shifted to people who have health insurance and more shifts to local communities and local hospitals," she said.

Rotundo said covering those families and individuals with Medicaid is cost-effective for the state with the federal government paying about two-thirds of the bill.

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, co-chairman of the committee, said he agreed with the concept the governor is pushing of having individuals and families pay for part of the their health care costs, but he said it may be premature. The federal health reform law takes effect in 2014, Rosen said, and will provide subsidies to help those between 133 percent of the poverty level and 200 percent of the poverty level to buy health insurance.

"We have to deal with the law that is on the books and bring our system into line," he said.

LePage joins other GOP governors in supporting significant changes in state Medicaid programs, and he has joined in court cases seeking to strike down the Maine law.

Sarah Gagne-Holmes, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group for low-income Mainers, said the governor's assertion -- that Maine will attract poor people from other states if it does not change its eligibility standard -- it is not true.

"We have heard that political rhetoric and anecdotes in the past, and there is no data to support it," she said. "In fact, the last data I saw from the (state) Department (of Health and Human Services) shows more people that are eligible for benefits are leaving the state than moving to the state."

Gagne-Holmes and Rotundo said they are dismayed the governor plans to push Medicaid cuts again.

"I don't see why the governor is still pushing for this," Rotundo said. "When this was before the committee this year, the cut would have saved around $5 (million) to $7 million. That is not a lot of savings for the costs it would shift."

LePage said every dollar saved in Medicaid is a dollar that can be used for other priorities.

Mal Leary is the editor of Capitol News Service.

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