June 19, 2018
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Obamacare advisory panel steers clear of advocating for Medicaid expansion

Contributed photo | BDN
Contributed photo | BDN
Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell
By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — A committee charged with overseeing the implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act in Maine shied away Monday from pushing the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage on the controversial issue of expanding Medicaid eligibility in Maine even though the majority of its members favor it.

Though all but one member of the Maine Health Exchange Advisory Committee — Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond — said Monday that they favor the federal government’s offer to pay 100 percent of the cost of the first three years of Medicaid expansion, recommendations that will be finalized next week won’t likely include it.

Gordon Smith, executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association, said he feared stepping into the debate over Medicaid expansion, which failed in the Legislature earlier this year due to the opposition of LePage and most Republican lawmakers, would overshadow the committee’s other work.

“If we get into that issue that will be fully debated by others, it really detracts from the rest of our work,” said Smith to the rest of the committee on Monday afternoon. “We would really be going into a deep black hole that we would never get out of.”

The committee, which is made up of legislators, health care advocates and officials and members of the general public, agreed in concept that solutions should be sought for the ranks of Mainers who don’t have health insurance. Some on the committee appeared to be positioning themselves to wage the Medicaid expansion in the future.

While supporters of the expansion have focused on its benefits to people who aren’t currently insured and the federal government’s promise to pay for 100 percent of the expansion for three years before gradually reducing to 90 percent funding, opponents argue that costs will eventually balloon out of control no matter what the feds promise.

Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, who co-chairs the committee, joined other members in pushing for more data from the federal Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine Bureau of Insurance. Specifically, she and others want to know who is applying for health insurance subsidies under the new federal health care law, who is being denied and what those people do after being denied.

Though there is little hard data, Treat said the committee is hearing anecdotally that about half of the Mainers who are applying for insurance at www.healthcare.gov are falling into the so-called “coverage gap,” which means they earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid and not enough to afford a private insurance policy even with subsidies from the federal government.

Data collection was one of several areas for which the committee is making recommendations, which it will finalize at its next meeting Nov. 9 in Augusta. The committee also favors measures that will make it easier for Mainers to sign up for health care coverage, including applying for federal grants to educate the public about health care options.

During previous meetings, the committee was focused on finding ways for people to sign up for insurance because of substantial problems with the federal website to do so. However, those problems have been largely fixed, according to Christie Hager, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services liaison for Maine who addressed the panel on Monday. That prompted the committee to suspend discussions about setting up a state-level health care exchange primarily for small businesses.

Mainers have until Dec. 23 to enroll for coverage that begins Jan. 1. Open enrollment for the 2014 plan year ends on March 31.

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