AUGUSTA, Maine — In two votes Wednesday, the Maine House fell short of overriding Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill calling for the state to expand eligibility for Medicaid, the state-federal low-income health insurance program, as allowed by the federal Affordable Care Act.
The House voted 97-52 Wednesday afternoon and 95-52 Wednesday evening to override LePage’s veto of LD 1066, a bill calling for the expansion. Those tallies fell short of the two-thirds threshold needed to override a veto, effectively killing the measure, which was one of the Democrats’ top priorities this session.
Following the afternoon vote, House Democrats used parliamentary maneuvers to push for reconsideration of the veto later Wednesday. But the bill died in a hastily called vote that occurred without debate as soon as the House reconvened just before 8 p.m.
The Democratic majority pulled out all the stops to keep the Medicaid expansion bill alive.
Two Democratic House members who have been absent much of the session for health reasons — Reps. Matt Peterson of Rumford and Paulette Beaudoin of Biddeford — turned out for the first veto override vote. And Democratic Leader Seth Berry voted at first to sustain the veto, a procedural move that allowed him to push for reconsideration of the override vote.
Republicans objected to the reconsideration move. “The final tally was recorded,” said House Republican Leader Kenneth Fredette. “This action has been resolved.”
Two Republicans were absent for the initial vote — Reps. Peter Doak of Columbia Falls and Thomas Tyler of Windham. Tyler has been among a small group of Republicans who have repeatedly voted for the Medicaid expansion measure.
Wednesday’s House votes represent another victory for LePage, who has opposed Medicaid expansion as a financially unsustainable broadening of “welfare.” He previously vetoed an earlier bill that linked Medicaid expansion to repaying a $484 million Medicaid debt to the state’s hospitals. The Senate sustained that veto.
The Legislature subsequently passed a bill to repay the state’s remaining Medicaid debt to hospitals. Democratic legislative leaders also advanced another bill, LD 1066, in a second attempt to pass Medicaid expansion. LePage vetoed that bill Monday evening, setting up Wednesday’s showdown in the House.
Expanding the state’s Medicaid program would provide coverage for about 50,000 adults without children who earn up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, or $20,628 for a two-person household. The expansion also would prevent about 25,000 parents and childless adults from losing their Medicaid coverage starting Jan. 1, 2014.
Democrats have argued that Medicaid expansion would help reduce the demand for charity care at Maine hospitals and that it would hold down the overall cost of health care by giving low-income people access to less-expensive preventive care.
Republicans, including Rep. Deborah Sanderson of Chelsea and Rep. Heather Sirocki of Scarborough, who spoke from the House floor before Wednesday’s vote, said that didn’t happen when the state expanded Medicaid eligibility in the past.
The LePage administration on Wednesday reiterated its position that it doesn’t want to expand a Medicaid program it says is financially unsustainable.
“We must continue our conversations with the federal government to expand flexibility and care for priority populations,” Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in a statement. “The Legislature seems to have manufactured a false and unnecessary sense of urgency to make a decision on expansion immediately, rather than taking the time to make a sound and sensible policy decision.”
The Cover Maine Now Coalition, which includes a range of groups that support the Medicaid expansion, announced after Wednesday’s vote it will continue pressing policymakers to accept the federal expansion funds.
There’s also one legislative option remaining for expansion proponents: A bill proposed by Fredette that would set up a study group to explore the state’s expansion options and report later in the year is still pending before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, blamed the failure of the Medicaid expansion bill squarely on LePage.
“We fought hard for health care for working people in our state,” he said in a statement. “We might not have the numbers today, but we showed we had the heart and the fight. We will not stop fighting for health care.”