LePage’s special session would address state’s debt to hospitals

Gov. Paul LePage
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Gov. Paul LePage
Posted Aug. 17, 2012, at 3:25 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 17, 2012, at 8:13 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — If Gov. Paul LePage ultimately calls lawmakers back to the State House this fall for a special legislative session, it will be to deal with the more than $150 million the state owes its hospitals, a Maine Hospital Association official confirmed Friday afternoon.

Steven Michaud, the association’s president, said Maine Hospital Association officials have discussed a number of concepts with LePage’s office related to the state paying back hospitals for services they provided to patients under the Medicaid program, but for which they haven’t been paid. Michaud said the discussions about a special session had to do with addressing that debt.

“I do know that the whole issue of paying the hospital debt was behind this whole thing,” he said. “How they’re going to do all of that and what proposals they have to do it, I’ve never seen anything.”

Maine’s hospitals are owed about $460 million for treating patients under the state’s Medicaid program, which provides insurance to low-income residents. To repay the debt, Michaud said, the state would have to come up with about a third of the money — about $153 million — and the federal government would kick in the rest.

“What they’ve done for years,” Michaud said, “they can’t afford the program. They’ve got too many people on the program so they just cap it in terms of what they pay us. We’ve got patients from five years ago we’re waiting to be paid for.”

Whether a special legislative session will take place and, by extension, when LePage’s proposal to repay the state’s hospitals will be taken up are still far from certain.

House Democratic leader Emily Cain said Friday morning that LePage told her during a phone call that he was no longer planning a special legislative session this fall in advance of November’s elections.

But LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett insisted the governor hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a special session and that he’s “keeping all options on the table.”

The divergent interpretations of the phone call between Cain and LePage capped off the second day of speculation around the State House about LePage’s plans after he told a gathering of Bangor-area Republicans Wednesday night that he’s considering a special session of the Legislature this fall to propose an initiative that he promised would “push the envelope” and further polarize Democrats against him.

Cain indicated in an email to reporters Friday morning that the governor told her he planned to wait until January, when a newly elected Legislature is in session, to propose legislation.

But Bennett said the governor still might call for a special legislative session this fall. She said the governor is consulting with the state Attorney General’s office to determine whether the proposal is legal.

“There are multiple options,” she said. “Every one of them is being taken into consideration at this point.”

A spokeswoman for the Attorney General didn’t return calls seeking comment Friday to confirm whether conversations were taking place with the governor.

Michaud, of the Maine Hospital Association, said he hasn’t been privy to discussions about how LePage planned to secure the money necessary to repay the hospitals.

But WABI-TV 5 reported late Friday morning that LePage was weighing a measure that would allow money from the state’s liquor distribution contract to be used to pay down the state’s debt to hospitals.

Citing anonymous State House sources, WABI reported that LePage also wants to drop a provision in state law that requires hospitals to obtain state approval, known as certificates of need, before taking on certain expansion projects.

LePage has said repeatedly since his run for governor in 2010 that it’s one of his priorities to pay back money owed to the state’s hospitals for services provided under the federal Medicaid program. One of the governor’s first budgets proposed $70 million to pay down the debt to hospitals, which leveraged about $180 million in matching federal funds.

In recent years, lawmakers and gubernatorial candidates have started looking to the state’s current liquor contract, which designates Maine Beverage Co. as the wholesale supplier of agency liquor stores, as a source for new revenues. The current contract is set to expire in 2014, and negotiations are under way on a new contract.

The current state budget requires the state to renegotiate the liquor contract by June 2013 in order to secure revenue for transportation and drinking water programs as well as state reserves.

Maine Beverage Co.’s president was out of the office Friday afternoon and not reachable for comment.

The state took in $125 million up front to balance the budget when it secured the current liquor distribution contract in 2004. Since that contract was signed, however, some in the Legislature have questioned whether the state forfeited significant potential revenues under the arrangement.

As the news slipped out Friday about LePage’s plans for a special session, his office continued not to disclose much.

Article V of the Maine Constitution allows a governor to call a special legislative session “on extraordinary occasions.” Bennett said the governor’s proposal “is something that we feel would warrant a special session and would adhere to the statute.”

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