AUGUSTA, Maine — Even before Maine lawmakers begin their review of Medicaid cuts that could leave 65,000 people without coverage, the talk is heating up over Gov. Paul LePage's plan that's aimed at avoiding a $220 million state budget shortfall.
Repeating his argument that the state faces a fiscal crisis due to unsustainable Medicaid costs, LePage went a step further and said Democrats "would rather deny the numbers, skew facts and ignore the problem altogether."
"For decades, policies led by Democratic leadership have expanded Medicaid benefits far beyond the national average, creating an unsustainable program," a statement from LePage said.
He added that he's "committed to overseeing a government that is held accountable and fiscally responsible."
The Republican governor's statement followed a weekend in which he defended the cuts in his radio address, drawing a response by Democrats who labeled them "irresponsible and short-sighted" and warned of their consequences on the state's fragile economy.
The LePage administration says action must be taken to curb spending for Medicaid, known in the state as MaineCare, because it has outgrown Maine taxpayers' ability to pay for it. State officials say Medicaid accounts for 21 percent of state spending, up from 12.4 percent in 1998. Since 2002, Medicaid enrollment has grown by 78 percent while the state's population has grown only 7 percent.
The administration says money needed for Medicaid expenses during this second quarter of the fiscal year is being borrowed from fourth quarter allocations. Besides the prospect of the program running out of money by April 1, the administration warns that federal allocations are drying up and there are no more stimulus funds to bail out the program as in years prior.
LePage is looking for budget changes to remove certain groups from Medicaid, including childless adults and 19- and 20-year-olds, and eliminate several services that aren't federally required, such as podiatry and adult family care. The governor hopes legislators will authorize the changes by the end of January so the cuts can take effect in April.
Democrats warn the changes would drastically reduce critical services like drugs for the elderly, dental care and Head Start.
The verbal sparring ushers in days of review by the Appropriations Committee. The committee will hear Tuesday from Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and will take public testimony the next three days in sessions that could run into the evenings.
Groups representing residents who would be affected by the cuts were organizing rallies Monday and marshaling troops to testify at the hearings. The Maine People's Alliance website provided online postcards that people could use to register their concerns with the Appropriations Committee. The Maine Children's Alliance planned a State House rally as the hearings begin Wednesday. AARP plans to testify against what it sees as shortsighted legislation.
House Democratic leader Emily Cain of Orono said her caucus is committed to passing a bipartisan budget package to make up for the gap between revenues and spending, but it's too soon to say what that would include or when it might get through the Legislature.
"The Legislature needs to have a clear understanding of the assumptions made and anticipated time line built into the governor's proposed DHHS budget," Cain said. That will be the job of the Appropriations Committee in the days ahead, she said. "This is a huge proposed set of changes."