AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Senate gave final passage Thursday night to Gov. Paul LePage’s top priority of the legislative session: paying back Maine’s $484 million hospital debt.
The unanimous, 35-0 Senate vote followed a unanimous House vote earlier Thursday. The measure now heads to LePage, who first proposed in January to take out a revenue bond to fund the debt repayment and use proceeds from a renegotiated state liquor contract to pay back the bond.
LePage also has pledged to issue more than $100 million in voter-approved bonds once lawmakers send him the hospital debt repayment bill.
The hospital debt debate was perhaps the defining issue of the legislative session. LePage had promised to veto all bills that crossed his desk before the hospital debt bill and Democrats, who hold majorities in both chambers, initially resisted the plan that tied together the liquor contract, hospital debt and a revenue bond.
Democrats later agreed to the combination and added an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program to the bill. That bill passed the Legislature, but was immediately vetoed by LePage.
Senators took their final hospital debt vote the same night they passed a new two-year state budget and a separate bill that proposes expanding Medicaid. LePage could receive all three measures at the same time.
Before voting, Assistant Senate Republican Leader Roger Katz of Augusta blamed Democrats for delaying action on the hospital debt bill.
“This is a happy day. Finally,” he said. “One wonders why we had to wait so long and cost our constituents so much money in the process.”
Senate Democratic Leader Seth Goodall of Richmond continued to argue that repaying the state’s hospitals should be linked with other health care reforms.
“We must all remain committed to strengthening our health care system because that’s what put us here,” he said, “a health care system that’s broken, a health care system that costs too much, a health care system that pays in ways we don’t even understand.”
The $484 million hospital debt dates largely to 2009 for care hospitals provided to Medicaid recipients for which they weren’t reimbursed. If the repayment is made by Oct. 1, Maine would owe $181 million from state coffers while the federal government would cover the remaining share.