Baldacci fires back at LePage over hospital debt ad, calls it attempt to distract from unpopular budget
BANGOR, Maine — No one has officially announced plans to run for governor in 2014, but the rhetoric among potential candidates is already becoming heated.
Former Maine Democratic Gov. John Baldacci said Friday he was “taken aback” by a new television ad that blames him for putting the state into Medicaid debt to the state’s 39 hospitals. The ad calls on Mainers to support Republican Gov. Paul LePage. It was produced by Maine People Before Politics, a group that supports LePage.
“I always thought that in leadership in Maine we always wanted to demonstrate best practices, both parties working together and [showing] respect for each other and being able to separate personality from the policies,” Baldacci said, following an appearance at Husson University. “And obviously in this administration that doesn’t happen. It becomes a very personal attack, and very personally motivated and not policy motivated.”
The ad states that Baldacci “walked out” on $484 million of hospital debt that threatened layoffs and threatened care.
Baldacci called the ad an erroneous “red herring” that sought to take attention away from LePage’s unpopular state budget proposal.
“I think that budget isn’t even supported by Republican legislators, towns and cities or in education,” Baldacci said. “And I think that he doesn’t want the discussion to be on the budget — it’s everything else but the budget.”
Baldacci said the debt began to accumulate before he took office because of the state’s outdated payment policy, in which it reimbursed hospitals after receiving bills, which arrived a year or two after the hospitals incurred the costs.
LePage’s camp disagrees with that assertion, arguing that the debt was the result of welfare expansion.
“These are simple facts: Mr. Baldacci grew welfare to the point there was still a hospital debt, unpaid, as he left office,” LePage political adviser Brent Littlefield said Friday. “LePage has a plan to pay the hospitals off in-full with no tax increases.”
In 2006, Baldacci struck a deal with the Maine Hospital Association that put hospitals first in line for any surplus funds at the end of a budget year. Baldacci and hospital officials expected the arrangement would yield $82 million in state funds by 2010 that could be leveraged into a $221 million Medicaid debt paydown with federal matching funds included.
Four years later, LePage made a campaign issue of paying back the state’s hospitals, and, during his first months in office in 2011, he negotiated a supplemental budget that included $66.8 million in state funds for the hospitals, which translated into a $247 million total payment with federal funds. That payment brought Maine’s debt current through the first half of 2009. The existing debt dates to mid-2009.
Baldacci said he is still undecided on whether to run for a new term as governor, but that “it appears the flag is being planted in terms of this campaign starting.” The hospital ad had the appearance of a campaign attack ad that “looks and smells like politics,” he said.
In a statement released Thursday, Baldacci said “LePage prefers to fight rather than govern. There’s bipartisan agreement on the need to repay the hospitals, but the governor can’t take ‘yes’ for an answer. The governor should be focused on the state budget, where his plans would raise property taxes, cut education and hurt the economy.”
“To me, the ad is not true. It should be reviewed and taken down. This kind of campaign has no place in Maine,” Baldacci said.
Littlefield argued that Baldacci’s past bipartisan compromises haven’t been so bipartisan.
“Apparently, Mr. Baldacci would like to rewrite history,” Littlefield said, pointing to a Jan. 31, 2004, Bangor Daily News story which stated that Democrats “rammed a partisan $109 million supplemental budget bill through the Legislature … but not before outflanking and enraging minority Republicans with an unexpected interpretation of legislative rules.”
In the wake of that contentious budget process, Republicans claimed the Democrats and Baldacci refused to negotiate the budget in good faith. Democrats countered by arguing Republicans assumed intractable positions and insisted on unrealistic compromises from the beginning.
“Only recently did Mr. Baldacci’s political team reverse course and agree to pay the hospitals this year,’” Littlefield said. “That was a positive, bipartisan step. They still have yet, however, to vote on a plan.”
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, who has said he also is considering a run for governor, and LePage faced off Wednesday over the push to expand Medicaid.
In a strongly worded statement issued Wednesday in response to Michaud’s endorsement of the Medicaid expansion, LePage said the federal reimbursement rate for Mainecare has significantly decreased over the past three years.
“The decrease in rates has created massive financial hardship for Maine. We have yet to receive any guarantee from the federal government that it can fully fund Medicaid expansion,” he said.
LePage said Maine is facing significant budget problems as a result of the last Medicaid expansion, which he said was financed temporarily by federal stimulus money and neglected to pay Maine’s 39 hospitals, resulting in a half-billion dollar debt.
LePage also noted that the federal debt has more than doubled since Michaud has been in Congress.
Baldacci made his comments Friday at Husson University after partnering with former Republican state Sen. Phil Harriman for a presentation trumpeting the Fix the Debt campaign, a national effort to bring attention to the nation’s debt, which is approaching $17 trillion and increases by nearly $4 billion each day.
“This is an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to work together, which is what Fix the Debt is all about,” Baldacci said.
The pair urged Mainers to help “change the coffee shop conversations in America,” to make the debt the country’s No. 1 political focus. Baldacci urged people to write and call their political representatives to let them know their concerns about the debt and ask them to work across the aisle to begin finding solutions.
Debt solutions need to become as important and prevalent in daily conversations as gun control, gay marriage and public health, Harriman said.
BDN reporter Robert Long contributed to this story.