March 19, 2019
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Lawmakers reach deal on DHHS budget

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee reached an early morning deal Wednesday on an alternative budget proposal for the Department of Health and Human Services — a move that likely will send the budget to the House and Senate for votes next week.

That’s where the real battle could take place, particularly if Gov. Paul LePage continues to oppose a budget fix that does not include the MaineCare reductions he called for.

Members of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee came to an agreement on two controversial items that had stalled the process in recent days.

As part of a bipartisan compromise, the budget proposal caps MaineCare funding for childless adults, or noncategoricals, at $40 million by freezing enrollment and through natural attrition.

The compromise budget reduces the number of noncategoricals on the MaineCare rolls by about half, lawmakers said, but does not eliminate them from coverage, something the governor wanted.

Additionally, the committee agreed to reduce the eligibility threshold for parents of children on MaineCare from 200 percent of the federal poverty level to 133 percent. That change will not take effect until October, however, and will bring Maine in line with the threshold spelled out in the federal Affordable Care Act.

The deal received unanimous support from Republicans and Democrats on the Appropriations Committee early Wednesday. Party leaders from both sides also helped negotiate the compromise.

Democrats said it was important to pass a budget so Maine could pay its bills and they were pleased that some drastic cuts were avoided.

“We were able to stay at the negotiating table and agree to a solution that protects health care for thousands,” said Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, an Appropriations Committee member. “We rejected the worst of the governor’s callous proposals to cut programs for seniors, the disabled, and children.”

Republican leaders lauded the compromise as well.

“The governor gave us a solid framework for this supplemental budget to restructure many programs administered by the Department of Health and Human Services,” House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said in a statement. “Leadership and the members of Appropriations worked to find the best solutions possible to some very challenging problems”

LePage, who has criticized lawmakers sharply in recent days and on Tuesday said he would veto any budget bill that did not eliminate noncategoricals, has no intention of supporting the compromise.

In a letter addressed to lawmakers on Feb. 7 but not delivered to them until Wednesday morning, the governor stressed the same points he has been making for weeks: Without meaningful structural changes, the MaineCare spending problem cannot be fixed. LePage pointed out Maine’s rapid enrollment increase in the last decade, which has led to bloated costs.

“We have been elected to do a job,” LePage wrote. “The Maine people spoke in November 2010, and it is time we put politics aside and solve the problems that are preventing Maine from becoming a prosperous place to live. Maine’s welfare system needs to be reformed, and tough decisions need to be made. Doing what is right for the Maine people is more important that getting reelected.”

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said LePage would not make any additional comments Wednesday about the budget, but she did say that he considers the proposal “unacceptable.”

Speaking to TV reporters at an event in Skowhegan early Wednesday, LePage said it was “a sad day for Maine people.” He went on to say that Mainers will have a chance in 2012 to elect lawmakers who will allow Maine to remain a nanny state or those who will help make Maine a self-sufficient state.

In December, LePage unveiled a plan to cut $220 million from DHHS to address a shortfall in 2012 and 2013. His initial plan would have removed 65,000 people from MaineCare by making structural changes to the program he believes are necessary to keep it solvent in the years ahead.

Appropriations Committee members balked at some of the items in the governor’s budget and have worked for weeks to find alternatives.

In total, lawmakers have tentatively approved $120 million in cuts to DHHS for the 2012 fiscal year that ends on June 30. An additional $80 million in proposed cuts to the DHHS budget for 2013 are expected to be debated in a separate bill later this month.

Neither side was entirely thrilled with the final product, but members acknowledged that a compromise was best for Maine people.

“The details of the agreement certainly won’t please everyone, however, there

are two critical factors that are addressed,” Nutting, a pharmacist, said. “First, the budget ensures that hospitals, pharmacies, nursing homes and other health care providers will continue to receive their reimbursement for Medicaid services provided. Second, the plan takes significant steps to address the structural problems that led to the DHHS shortfall.”

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the lead Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, added, “We had to pass this budget to keep the lights on, make sure seniors get their medicine, and ensure nurses and health workers continue to get paid. We had few choices to resolve the immediate budget problem.”

In order for the budget to go into effect immediately, it needs support from two-thirds of lawmakers. That means 101 votes in the House and 24 in the Senate.

House and Senate leaders are hopeful of a two-thirds vote, but LePage may try to coax some Republicans to reject the new budget. The governor has reached out to conservative lawmakers in recent days in what some are calling a “loyalty check.”

Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, a member of the Legislature’s conservative caucus, said he doesn’t think there are many House members who will vote against the budget simply because the governor told them to.

“I think at the end of the day, people are going to say it’s a step in the right direction,” he said.

Timberlake was among the minority who did not vote for the biennial budget that passed last year, but said he hasn’t made up his mind on the DHHS supplemental budget.

“Everyone thinks you’re going to come to Augusta and perform miracles,” he said. “The reality of it is, if you can take this great big ship and make a one-degree turn, that’s a win.

“Have we changed DHHS and reformed welfare? I think Republicans are going to be able to run on ‘Yes, we’ve done that’ and Democrats will be able to run on ‘Yes, we helped curtail spending.’”

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