AUGUSTA, Maine — Public hearings on proposed MaineCare cuts continued into the third day Friday and included a call to resurrect a once-unpopular beverage tax.
Gov. Paul LePage ruled out the possibility of any tax increase at a Thursday press conference, but a representative of the Maine Medical Association urged lawmakers to consider new revenue sources rather than radically restructure the MaineCare health insurance program.
“The real human needs will not go away,” Andrew MacLean, deputy executive vice president of the association, testified before the Appropriations and Health and Human Services committees, according to written testimony. “Costs simply will be shifted elsewhere in state government and in our economy.”
LePage has called for tightening eligibility guidelines, eliminating services and repealing coverage for thousands of recipients to bring MaineCare closer to national averages. He has said his plan is the best way to address an estimated $220 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services budget. MaineCare is the state’s version of the federal Medicaid program.
Efforts to improve health care quality and reform payment systems will take time to generate savings, MacLean said in his testimony. He suggested that the panels in the short term consider increasing the cigarette tax or the tax on beer, wine and liquor, or taxing sugar-sweetened beverages.
In 2008, Maine voters repealed a beverage tax passed by the Legislature to fund the Dirigo Health program.The law would have replaced the program’s funding source with a 1.8 percent surcharge on health insurance claims and a new excise tax on beer, wine, soda and other sugary beverages. Mainers voted overwhelmingly to overturn the law.
MacLean also asked the committees to consider a temporary increase in the sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent and eliminating or deferring tax breaks enacted as part of the last two-year state budget.
The Maine Medical Association joined hospitals, students, business owners and others for a morning press conference protesting proposed cuts to the Fund for a Healthy Maine. LePage’s proposal slashes more than $25 million from the fund, which allocates money from the landmark 1998 tobacco settlement for smoking and substance abuse prevention programs as well as health initiatives for the young, elderly and disabled.
“When people are healthy, children do better in school, workers are more productive, and businesses can add jobs because health costs are lower,” the coalition said in a press release. “This is why it’s more important than ever that we continue to use the Fund for a Healthy Maine for what it was intended to do: promote good health and prevent costly disease.”
LePage has said his plan makes tough choices to rein in skyrocketing MaineCare enrollment and tackle the reality of dwindling federal reimbursements. An estimated 65,000 recipients would lose coverage under the proposal.
Hundreds of people testified at the hearings over the course of three days, the majority in opposition to the plan, though some speakers favored it.
Weeza Matthias of Bangor, a former physician, testified that the cuts will leave her homeless within two years. She’s in treatment for breast cancer and another chronic disease and said cuts to the Medicare Savings Program, which helps pay for her Medicare premiums, and other assistance will leave her with just $118 a month for food, gas and other needs.
“If I do become homeless, I’ll die,” she said, according to her written testimony. “If I don’t take care of my health and take my medications, I’ll die. This is what you are deciding, not just for me, but for every poor, elderly and disabled person in the state.”
BDN photographer Kevin Bennett contributed to this report.