June 24, 2019
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Funding Medicaid expansion must be a priority for lawmakers

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Mainers for Health Care rally outside the State House prior to Gov. Paul LePage's State of the State address, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, in Augusta, Maine.

Lawmakers will reconvene Wednesday to consider numerous bills that Gov. Paul LePage has vetoed. They may also discuss extending the legislative session that was abruptly halted last month, leaving much unfinished business.

If there is one thing lawmakers must complete before officially adjourning the session for good, it is Medicaid expansion. First, despite roadblocks from the governor and opposition from some Republican lawmakers, expansion is the law. Second, since it is law, delaying it only wastes time and money.

Most important, expanding Medicaid means thousands of Mainers who don’t have insurance will be able to access preventative care, vaccinations, addiction treatment, counseling and other needed care. Currently, many people without insurance put off doctor’s visits until illnesses or injuries become so bad they threaten their work and well-being. It will also help stabilize the state’s hospitals and add jobs.

On Monday, advocates for expansion sued the Department of Health and Human Services to compel it to move forward with expansion. This wouldn’t be necessary if the Legislature and LePage administration stopped stalling.

Last year, voters strongly endorsed an expansion of Medicaid in Maine, making the state the 32nd to expand the public health insurance program.

By expanding Medicaid, Maine will make insurance coverage available to 80,000 Mainers. These are people who work but can’t afford health insurance or their employer doesn’t offer it. They are not poor enough or do not have a disability to qualify for Medicaid without an expansion. Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government covers 90 percent of the cost. Maine is estimated to receive more than $525 million per year for a state investment of about $55 million annually, beginning in 2021, the first full year of implementation.

In his State of the State speech in February, LePage said he would implement Medicaid expansion if it is paid for without raising taxes. This is a fairly easy bar to clear, especially as the state has surplus revenue. But, since then, LePage has thrown up other roadblocks.

The voter-approved law set out a specific timeframe for Maine to implement expansion. By April 3, the state was supposed to send an expansion plan to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but the deadline came and went with no plan.

By July 2, the state is supposed to be signing people up for coverage.

That deadline, too, is likely to be missed. Hence, the lawsuit, which is likely to force the state to follow the law and implement the voter-approved expansion.

The lack of action is more political than practical. LePage and other opponents of expansion want to tell their supporters that they stood up to what they wrongly call an expensive, liberal idea. It is not a coincidence that House Majority Leader Ken Fredette, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, said recently that lawmakers have plenty of time to finish the Legislature’s unfinished business. He and other Republicans want to wait until after the Republican primary, which is on June 12, to negotiate. That way they can continue to campaign as anti-big government candidates who fought against expanding government services and government spending.

Lawmakers, who have approved expansion five times only to have it vetoed by LePage, can begin to resolve the impasse by setting aside the politics and allocating funding to enable expansion to begin.

Resolving this impasse should be a priority for lawmakers when they return to Augusta on Wednesday.

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