politics

Pingree to LePage: Federal waiver unlikely to allow DHHS cuts

Chellie Pingree
Gabor Degre | BDN
Chellie Pingree
Posted Jan. 31, 2012, at 11:20 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 31, 2012, at 6:12 p.m.
Paul LePage
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Paul LePage

AUGUSTA, Maine — Rep. Chellie Pingree told Gov. Paul LePage during a private meeting on Tuesday that it was unlikely that any federal Medicaid waivers would be granted to allow some of the health care cuts he has proposed.

After a 45-minute meeting between the two in the governor’s office, Pingree spoke briefly to reporters.

“The governor and I had a very honest conversation about what a tough problem he and the Legislature has,” she said. “I continue to disagree with him on the issue of Medicaid waivers … I don’t know that the federal government at this point is going to say to Maine, it is OK to put people back out on the street with no health care coverage.”

The governor did not speak after Tuesday’s meeting but his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, called the discussion positive.

“It’s my understanding that the governor and Congresswoman Pingree agree that we are in a financial crisis and the congresswoman listened to the governor and they will both work toward short-term solutions as well as the long term,” Bennett said. “There are some philosophical differences between how we need to get where we need to be.”

One of the sticking points of the governor’s proposal to cut $220 million from the Department of Health and Human Services is whether some of the cuts are legal. Specifically, it’s likely that federal waivers to the Affordable Care Act would be needed to allow an estimated $37 million in cuts. The act prevents states from dropping coverage before it is fully implemented in 2014.

A letter sent last week to Maine lawmakers from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services concluded that the waivers were unlikely and Pingree agreed.

“More than once, the governor has asked for the delegation’s assistance in getting these waivers,” she said. “The routes that he’s taking are just illegal and ineligible under the law. I don’t see a route that he’s planning that will actually work to solve this problem.”

Bennett said the LePage administration has not given up on the waivers.

“DHHS and the governor has not submitted any formal request to Secretary Sebelius and until that time we will not be assuming that a waiver would not be granted,” Bennett said. “The governor would like to talk with her and submit a formal request before anyone starts assuming or speculating what the secretary will or will not do.”

The budget is out of the governor’s hands and a decision now rests with the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee. The group has been meeting for several weeks now and although some items have been agreed upon, the biggest parts of the proposal are still up for debate.

Several days ago, LePage and legislative leaders came to an informal agreement that they would report the budget out of Appropriations by Wednesday. It wasn’t clear Tuesday if that would happen.

Members of the Appropriations Committee have been tight-lipped about how or when the budget will proceed.

Already, the Appropriations Committee has balked at one major part of the governor’s proposal, a $60 million cut to private nonmedical institutions, or PNMIs. Part of that hole likely would be addressed by an estimated $39.5 million that was set aside in the state’s rainy day fund. That still leaves $20 million.

Pingree was asked whether she offered the governor any alternatives.

“I said one thing the governor can do is go back to companies like Wal-Mart that actually educate their workers to qualify for Medicaid as opposed to giving better coverage to their own workers,” Pingree said. “One of the reasons many people have turned to Medicaid is because the cost of paying for health care through your job have gone up and employers are giving less and less. For many of the big chains, they could do more of their share.”

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