Congress’ work helps Mainers

Posted Aug. 18, 2010, at 6:29 p.m.

More often than not, Washington, D.C., is recognized as the hub of gridlock, both in terms of traffic and its politics. Yet amid all the wrangling last month and eagerness to get out of town for a monthlong vacation, a very important piece of legislation received congressional action.

Medicaid has long been a fiscal dilemma to states. The joint federal-state health program serves tens of millions each year. Because of its sheer size, however, the program is often an easy target for policymakers seeking to squeeze even more so-called savings in these tight budget times.

In the case of Maine’s nursing facility residents, drastic cuts that would have had lasting consequences and negative effects on quality health care for the nearly 7,000 Mainers who call nursing facilities home, were avoided only by the original FMAP infusion to the state budget.

Congress’ extension of the Medicaid Federal Medical Assistance Percentage, or FMAP, by an additional $16 billion will continue to provide needed financial aid to skilled nursing and long-term care facilities across Maine that rely on adequate Medicaid funding to provide quality care and local job stability.

As important as this funding is, not every member of Congress agreed. As is so often the case in Washington these days the chamber was locked in a legislative stalemate. Neither side, Republican nor Democrat, seemed willing to budge to make the tough decision. Maine, however, took a stand for what is right.

Checking party labels at the door, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins cast their deciding votes and moved this bill through. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud then took up the banner for Maine and ensured the legislation was brought over the finish line. Because of these actions, Maine took another step toward protecting Maine seniors’ care and vital local health jobs as pressure mounts on state budgets and governors are forced to reduce Medicaid-financed care and services further.

FMAP serves as the critical safety net protecting seniors and the jobs of the front-line caregivers who make a significant difference in patient outcomes. Nearly 10,000 individuals in Maine work in skilled nursing facilities, and without the support of legislators such as Sens. Snowe and Collins and Reps. Pingree and Michaud, those jobs would be at risk.

The Great Recession has hit every state hard. Maine is no different. And with tight economic times, difficult choices loom at every turn. This year, according to Families USA, 41 states estimated they will have budget gaps for 2011 totaling $102 billion.

Originally part of the economic stimulus bill passed in 2009, the FMAP extension was scheduled to end on Dec. 31, 2010 — right in the middle of many states’ fiscal year. The critical vote the Maine delegation took ensured our nation’s Greatest Generation would have the funding they need to receive the care they deserve.

Sens. Collins and Snowe and Reps. Pingree and Michaud answered the call of Maine’s vulnerable residents and took a crucial stand for what is important and necessary. It takes a lot of political courage to stand up and do the right thing.

We commend our federal legislators for doing what we’ve come to expect from them each and every time they cast their vote. They made their voices heard for no one else than the people of Maine, specifically the vulnerable populations who most often cannot speak for themselves. That’s a rare quality in Washington, but it’s standard fare in Maine. And for that, our long-term care residents and their families are grateful.

Richard Erb is president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association, representing more than 250 long-term care providers including nursing homes. Bruce Yarwood is president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living.

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