LePage says Democratic leaders obstructing progress on state hospital debt

Gov. Paul LePage
Gov. Paul LePage
Posted April 27, 2013, at 6:53 p.m.
Last modified April 28, 2013, at 12:13 p.m.
Mark Eves
Mark Eves Buy Photo

BANGOR, Maine — Democrats who now want to expand the Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act are “jumping the gun” because not enough is known yet about the program, Gov. Paul LePage said Saturday.

“[Health and Human Services] Commissioner [Mary] Mayhew is going to Washington next week specifically to talk about the expansion,” LePage said at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel at Bangor International Airport. “Why would we jump the gun and not work with the federal government before we expand it?”

The governor and his wife, Ann LePage, were in Bangor on Saturday morning to attend the state convention of the Maine chapter of Disabled Veterans of America.

At an impromptu press conference in the walkway between the terminal and the hotel, the governor said that he wanted some assurances from officials in Washington, D.C., “that in three years they aren’t going to start reducing reimbursement.”

LePage was reacting to what he called “an ultimatum” delivered Thursday by Democratic legislative leaders. They proposed a deal that would tie the payback of Maine’s $484 million hospital debt to the expansion of Medicaid, according to a previously published report.

The governor used stronger language when he spoke with a reporter from the Sun Journal in Lewiston. In that interview, LePage called on Mainers to demand that the hospital debt be paid.

“It’s a sin,” LePage said, according to a report posted Saturday on the Sun Journal’s website. “It’s criminal. It’s absolutely criminal, the behavior of (Senate President) Justin Alfond and (House Speaker) Mark Eves. And I’m going to tell you this: It’s not the Democrats versus the Republicans. It is the people of Maine against Justin Alfond and Mark Eves because many, many Republicans and many, many Democrats are willing to get this done.”

The governor was in Lewiston for personal reasons.

Both Eves and Alfond are Democrats. Eves is from North Berwick. Alfond lives in Portland.

The governor accused Alfond of being an “obstructionist,” the Sun Journal said.

“Obstructionist?”Alfond responded Saturday afternoon in an email. “The governor has a short memory. Weeks ago he threatened to veto every bill and he single-handedly has prevented 3,000 jobs and over $300 million dollars of investments in our state by not issuing voter approved bonds. The governor, since taking office, has insulted Maine State workers, teachers and the Legislature. Weekly, he blasts our great state. He has been the most divisive leader our state has ever seen.”

Alfond also said that “Democrats will pay the hospitals in full this session.” The state senator call Thursday’s meeting “productive.”

“Not surprisingly, the governor has used this meeting to issue personal insults and continue bullying,” Alfond said in the email. “This is not leadership.”

In Bangor, LePage said that before he can commit to a Medicaid expansion, he needs more details about how the the program will be implemented.

“I’m not going to say that we won’t expand Medicaid, but I need a lot more information from the federal government,” LePage said Saturday.

LePage said that he wanted to look at Medicaid in its entirety, including reports of fraud. The governor also said he wants look at the entire safety net system, including welfare, to see how all programs that serve the poor can be made more efficient.

“I’m willing to look at ways to lower the burden on Maine taxpayers,” he said. “I think we need to look at the whole thing, and I can’t do that in two weeks.”

Democratic leaders have said they want to pass a Medicaid expansion bill in the next few weeks.

LePage unveiled his plan in January to pay off the state’s hospital debt by taking out a revenue bond backed by the state’s future liquor profits. He said he would release $105 million in voter-approved bonds that he has so far refused to issue once lawmakers sign off on his debt repayment plan. The hospital debt has accrued since 2009 for services hospitals provided to Medicaid patients but for which they haven’t been reimbursed by the state.

Democratic leaders initially resisted the plan, saying the hospital debt payback and liquor contract shouldn’t be considered as part of the same bill. The party’s leaders later proposed an alternative plan tying the hospital debt payback to a renegotiation of the liquor contract. However, that plan, sponsored by Senate Democratic Leader Seth Goodall, proposed demanding an upfront payment from the winning liquor vendor rather than having the state take out a revenue bond.

In recent weeks, consensus has emerged around using a revenue bond to pay back the debt as Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, has said the approach meets constitutional muster and a nonpartisan analysis has shown the approach would also direct more revenue to state coffers than having a private company secure the capital needed to make a $200 million upfront payment.

Eves last week said Democratic leaders are crafting a bill that ties together a renegotiation of the state’s wholesale liquor contract, a revenue bond to repay the hospital debt and the Medicaid expansion, which has been proposed in a separate bill by Rep. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham.

Expanding Medicaid “addresses one of the cost drivers in our health care system, which is charity care,” Eves said, referring to care hospitals provide for free to low-income patients without health insurance. “The hospitals want Medicaid expansion, and they know it would address a cost driver within their system. We really feel it’s the responsible thing to do.”

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