Maine lawmakers return for another Medicaid debate - The Caledonian-Record - St. Johnsbury, VT
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home : news : regional February 5, 2016

1/7/2014
Maine lawmakers return for another Medicaid debate

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) -- Maine lawmakers return this week to begin their work on a host of issues including the state budget and college affordability, but what's likely to be one of the biggest, most partisan debates of the year isn't a new one.

Democrats, who control the Legislature, are renewing their push to expand Medicaid coverage under the federal health overhaul -- a plan that has already twice been vetoed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage and upheld with the support of GOP lawmakers. Under the plan, an estimated 70,000 more people would qualify for Medicaid, and the federal government would pay for most of the expansion.

Democrats hope that the fact that it's an election year will help their cause.

"Denying health care for 70,000 people and $250 million of additional dollars to the state is a big deal and I think people get that," said House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat from North Berwick.

The impact of the state's decision not to expand will become more apparent this session as an estimated 24,390 Mainers fall into the gap between being eligible for Medicaid under the current guidelines and qualifying for tax credits available to buy coverage on the government-run insurance marketplace, said Brian Duff, a political science professor at the University of New England.

The decision has become a human interest story, rather than simply a political debate, which could put pressure on Republicans to back the expansion, he said.

"We have all these little districts and it really comes down to what kind of letters and pressure and phone calls legislators are getting," Duff said.




Republican lawmakers, however, point to the fumbled rollout of the health care law as further evidence for why the expansion is a bad idea.

"I would be shocked if my colleagues were more prone to signing on, given the fact that this is just a part of Obamacare, which has been a disaster as far as its implementation," said Senate Republican Leader Michael Thibodeau of Winterport. Democrats are distracting the Legislature's attention from more pressing issues -- like a $100 million gap in the state budget -- by bringing the issue up for a vote again, he said.

LePage maintains that Medicaid expansion isn't possible without changes to the current system. His administration recently hired a group led by Gary Alexander, the former welfare chief of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, to review the program and determine the feasibility of an expansion.

Overhauling welfare will be one of LePage's top priorities next session, with proposals such as requiring some welfare recipients to apply to three jobs before they receive benefits and removing some exemptions for welfare-work requirements. He's also said his administration is launching an investigation into how electronic transfer benefit cards are being used and is considering bills that would prohibit the cards' use for things like alcohol or lottery tickets.

Other issues on the Legislature's agenda this session include:

-- Supplemental budget: Maine lawmakers must craft a supplemental budget to fill budget gaps and reflect new expenses. Usually, the governor's office proposes one, but LePage says he doesn't plan to because he never signed off on the budget in the first place. He vetoed the budget in June because it included tax increases, but lawmakers voted to override his veto.

-- Student debt: Assistant Republican Leader Roger Katz of Augusta is backing a bill to have the state study a pilot program being developed in Oregon that would allow students to go to school tuition- and loan-free. Under a similar bill proposed by Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland, the state's education committee would examine multiple methods, including Oregon's model, to come up with a plan for college affordability that works for Maine.

-- Bonds: Democratic lawmakers say they'll push to send more state bonds before voters. LePage and Democrats agreed in Augusta to a $150 bond package for spending on such items as education and roads infrastructure, which was approved by voters in November. Democrats said part of the deal was that the governor and GOP would consider bonds for research and development in January.

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Follow Alanna Durkin on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aedurkin







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