January 9

Medicaid expansion supporters rally at Maine State House

Passage of a bill that would expand the health coverage faces Republican opposition.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Approximately 200 people filled the State House Wednesday for a rally supporting the expansion of Medicaid, the publicly funded health insurance program for the poor, elderly and disabled.

click image to enlarge

The third-floor hallway between the House and Senate chambers is crowded with people who were part of a large group attending a State House rally in Augusta on Wednesday to support Medicaid expansion as this year’s legislative session kicked off.

Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

The event, organized by the liberal activist group the Maine People’s Alliance, featured several individuals who lost their Medicaid coverage on Dec. 31 because of changes passed by the previous Legislature, but would regain it if the Legislature approves expanding the program this session.

The debate over Medicaid expansion is raging in state capitols all over the country, fueled by policymakers considered key opponents of the federal health care law.

In Maine, it is expected to be one of the more contentious issues of the legislative session.

Expanding the program through the Affordable Care Act would benefit approximately 60,000 Mainers who make less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The federal government would fully fund expansion for three years, before gradually drawing down to a 90 percent reimbursement rate by 2020.

Opponents, including Gov. Paul LePage and many Republican lawmakers, say Medicaid expansion carries hidden costs and that the state budget already suffers from previous program expansions.

During the State House rally, several speakers said they could not afford private health insurance and did not qualify for subsidies available through the Affordable Care Act. The so-called coverage gap affects approximately 24,000 Mainers, or roughly 19 percent of the state’s uninsured population.

Several of them discussed their experiences on Wednesday.

Pete Miller, who lives in Ellsworth and is a prep cook at Pat’s Pizza, said he cannot afford to buy private health insurance. He said he has a blood clotting issue that forces him to have his blood drawn regularly and to take blood-thinning medication. He had been on Medicaid – known here as MaineCare – for several years before losing his coverage at the end of December.

Asked how much it would cost him to buy private insurance, Miller said, “More than I can make.”

Joseph Kubetz of Portland said he’s in relatively good health but has no health insurance. He recently started a new landscaping business and worries that one accident or health setback could sink his business.

Tom Benne, a self-employed farmer from Whitefield, said he also fell into the coverage gap and lost his Medi- caid coverage in 2013. He had a hip replacement in 2012.

“In 2010 my wife had a heart attack,” Benne said. “Because of MaineCare she got the care she needed and made a full recovery. We lost our MaineCare on (Dec. 31).”

He said they went to a navigator to try to purchase health insurance through the Affordable Care Act and discovered they couldn’t qualify for subsidies.

“I’m in the gap. We’re both in the gap,” he said.

After the rally, activists moved upstairs to lobby lawmakers between the House and Senate chambers.

Mike Tipping, a spokesman for the Maine People’s Alliance, said the rally was one of the group’s largest turnouts for a so-called “lobby day.”

Nonetheless, advocates for expansion have a tough road ahead.

Beth O’Connor, chairwoman of Maine Taxpayers United, who joined members of that group at the State House Wednesday, said Maine had already seen the effects of Medicaid expansion. O’Connor, a former state representative, said expansion would mostly benefit able-bodied Mainers.

“They’re going to the front of the line,” she said. “And once again the 3,100 people (who are on a waiting list) are getting kicked back.”

O’Connor added, “Frankly it’s a disincentive. People won’t get off their butts and try to get a job. What we need to do is focus on the economy so that more people can find work.”

(Continued on page 2)

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