PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A standing-room-only audience crowded into Northern Maine Community College on Wednesday afternoon for the second of three regional meetings held so that Aroostook County residents could weigh in on Gov. Paul LePage’s supplemental budget and its proposed reductions to MaineCare costs.
Several urged the state to crack down on those abusing MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program for low-income and disabled residents.
More than 150 people were on hand for the forum, which LePage did not attend. A representative from his administration was on hand to take notes.
The governor attended the Fort Kent forum on Tuesday, but LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said he never had confirmed he would be at the Presque Isle forum or a planned forum in Houlton scheduled for Thursday.
The event was attended by a number of lawmakers from throughout The County who said they would take the concerns to Augusta with them.
LePage’s proposal, designed to address an estimated $220 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services budget, calls for tightening eligibility guidelines, eliminating services and repealing coverage for thousands of recipients to bring MaineCare closer to national averages. The governor has outlined planned funding rollbacks for mental health services and substance abuse programs, as well as a loss of benefits for some low-income adults.
Many of the speakers, who identified themselves only by their first names, were elderly, ill or were caregivers for someone disabled, ill or elderly. A number of the speakers expressed anger both at the reductions and at what some saw as the state’s failure to crack down on those abusing the MaineCare system.
Several residents said that they knew people who was classified as disabled and who were receiving MaineCare benefits while also working on the side. A Mars Hill woman who spoke said she was a two-time breast cancer survivor and also had a serious heart condition. She said that she had struggled to get the health coverage she needed and also spoke of a relative with multiple sclerosis who fought for MaineCare coverage.
“We have to fight 15-year-old girls who are pregnant and living with their parents for coverage,” she said to applause from the audience.
Another woman, who told lawmakers that she also battled for MaineCare coverage despite lifelong epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, said the state needs to “do something” about young women who are easily getting coverage when they become pregnant.
“Train these girls for a job, get them off welfare and off MaineCare,” she said. “I’ve also seen people out there chopping wood who say they are disabled. They aren’t disabled.”
Others said they supported LePage’s proposal, including one man who declared that “our day of reckoning is here.”
“You’ve got to make cuts now,” he told the legislators. “There are a wide variety of programs in place that can take a hit, even a small one.”
Rep. Bernard Ayotte, R-Caswell, said that LePage wants to take people off the MaineCare dole so that those who are truly deserving, such as the disabled and elderly, can be taken care of.
“I know the governor; he is not going to put anyone out on the street,” he said.
Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said he heard the complaints from those who were fed up with a system that they believe is open to abuse. He said that he was offended by businesses that did not offer health insurance to employees but instead told them to pursue MaineCare.
But he added that he felt the real goal was to make sure that all of the state’s residents had health care coverage, which drew rousing applause from the crowd.
Rep. Alex Willette, R-Mapleton, urged residents who knew of those defrauding MaineCare to call the state to report such abuses.
“A lot of people have talked about fraud,” he said. “But you can’t catch people until you are willing to tell the state about it. Catching people defrauding the system starts with you. We can’t just go and investigate every person. We don’t have the staff. It starts with you.”
Katrin Teel, senior policy adviser for the governor’s office, said LePage is seeking to protect the state’s most vulnerable residents.
“This is not raiding MaineCare; it is rescuing it,” she said of his proposal. “He will be working with the Legislature to care for those who most need these services. It was interesting to hear all of the viewpoints today, and they will be taken back to the governor.”