LEWSITON, Maine — Like a winner of the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes, Peter Chalke, president and CEO of Central Maine Medical Center, accepted an oversized check for more than $38 million.
The check was handed over by Gov. Paul LePage, a symbolic gesture representing the hospital’s share of more than $490 million of combined state and federal MaineCare debt paid off to almost 40 hospitals statewide on Wednesday.
“I’d like to thank the governor for fulfilling his promise,” to pay down the old debt, Chalke said to the crowd of hospital employees and reporters in the hospital’s main lobby.
LePage made paying back Maine’s hospitals a key legislative goal in the first session of the 126th Legislature. It was a hard-fought victory, but by the end of the session in June, the hospitals were on track to see the debt paid.
The state’s payment of more than $183 million triggered the federal government to pay its share of Medicaid — operated under the name “MaineCare” in the Pine Tree State — which amounted to nearly $307 million.
The Republican governor celebrated his victory accordingly, and promised that as long as he is governor, the state will never owe the hospitals money again.
“This is a promise I made, and it’s a promise I’m keeping,” LePage said. “As governor, It’s embarrassing to watch your hospitals lay people off because you’re not paying the bills. … I’m so proud, and if I never accomplish anything else in life, we paid the hospitals.”
The buoyant atmosphere was interrupted, however, by members of the liberal Maine People’s Alliance, which brought its fight to accept federal dollars for an expansion of Medicaid — a key provision of President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform law — to LePage’s party.
One volunteer, dressed as Uncle Sam, posed in front of LePage’s podium with his own giant check representing the $1.05 billion Maine would receive over three years from Washington if it accepted Medicaid expansion, which the governor vetoed earlier this year.
The expansion would provide publicly funded health care to roughly 70,000 Mainers who make less than 133 percent of the federal poverty threshold, including roughly 25,000 who will lose that coverage on Jan. 1 as a result of not expanding eligibility.
Democrats on Tuesday said they’d introduce a new bill in the next session to accept the federal dollars and enact the expansion. The Maine Center for Economic Policy, a left-leaning think tank, said Wednesday that failure to expand Medicaid in Maine would result in a hospitals losing $600 million and 1,500 potential jobs.
Republicans, who criticize Medicaid expansion as unnecessary welfare reform, contend that it would cost the state money over time, after the federal government decreases its funding to 90 percent.
During the event, two members of MPA who said they were among those who have lost or will lose coverage because of LePage’s decision not to expand coverage, criticized the governor for his decision.
“Isn’t health care a basic human right? Why should people die because of your politics?” asked Marie Pineo of Yarmouth.
The governor took the theatrics and questions from opponents in stride, smiling as “Uncle Sam” stole the show momentarily before being escorted out by security, and telling the women that they’d be eligible for coverage and subsidies under the new health insurance exchange — another provision of the Affordable Care Act — next year.
The governor also resisted questions from reporters about whether he’d consider the Democrats’ new proposal.
“Today is a good day. Today is celebration. It’s a day of paying back a debt that started a decade ago because we expanded and couldn’t afford it,” he said. “Today we’re going to celebrate, and tomorrow we’ll talk about expansion.”
But the governor didn’t hold that line for long. Before taking another question, he pivoted back to the issue.
“You know folks, I’m willing to negotiate, I’m always willing to have people come in and put a logical, sensible plan on the table. I’ve been governor now approaching three years, and from the opposition, I’ve yet to see it,” he said.
In an emailed statement, Democratic leaders, including Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said they were happy to see the Medicaid debt repaid, but said the job is only half done if the state doesn’t accept Medicaid expansion.
Democrats also have emphasized that state government’s repayment of Medicaid debt to Maine’s hospitals began under Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, whom LePage’s supporters have criticized for running up the hospital debt.
Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, attended the event.
“[The hospital debt] is a symptom of a larger problem with the affordability of health care,” Rotundo said. “That’ why we’ve been supporting the expansion of MaineCare, and I hope the governor will join us.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.