A judge has denied Gov. Paul LePage’s administration’s request to stay an order forcing it to implement voter-approved Medicaid expansion, but pushed the deadline to do so back to after the Republican leaves office.
The Thursday ruling effectively hands the long-running political and legal fight over implementing a policy that voters approved in 2017 to Gov.-elect Janet Mills, a Democrat who has said fully implementing the expansion plan is a top priority.
Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy’s nine-page decision to move the implementation deadline back from Dec. 5 to Feb. 1 means that LePage could leave office without putting into effect a policy he has long and bitterly opposed.
Spokespersons for LePage and Mills did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Robyn Merrill, executive directory of Maine Equal Justice Partners — which brought the suit against the state Department of Health and Human Services — welcomed the ruling as “good news” and said the extended deadline will ensure that expansion is “done right.”
Murphy ruled that Mainers would be eligible for Medicaid benefits retroactive to July 2 — the original deadline for expanding coverage — and seemed to chastise LePage for his resistance to the voter-approved measure that is estimated to extend the government health care program to 70,000 state residents.
LePage has long contended that expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act would come with a lethal load of debt and has made blocking Democrats’ efforts to do so a defining issues of his time in the Blaine House. Earlier this year, he vetoed a funding measure put forth by legislative Democrats, saying that the spending plan relied too heavily on gimmicks, including Mills’ proposal to tap tobacco settlement money.
In her ruling, Murphy rejected the “the fiction of imminent fiscal calamity” and wrote that “the administration has so delayed implementation that hundreds of Maine citizens who have applied for benefits … are still mired in administrative proceedings.”
But the judge also acknowledged that politics have overtaken the slow march of a lawsuit filed in June.
The extended implementation deadline is not meant to postpone the earlier order but rather to give the new administration and Legislature “time to address the fiscal challenges presented by” expansion, she wrote.
A spokeswoman for the outgoing governor previously said that LePage plans to appeal Murphy’s November ruling that the expansion must be implemented, while Mills has said she will “accomplish Medicaid expansion with existing funds on day one.”