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Feds Press Maine to Expand Medicaid
11/18/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Today, White House officials chimed in with a chorus of Mainers calling for the state to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The telephone news conference the White House organized today is part of a renewed campaign after Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bill to expand Medicaid last June. As Patty Wight reports, the state is also facing a more immediate decision on whether to accept President Obama's proposal to appease consumers unhappy with changes in the Affordable Care Act, and extend cancelled insurance policies for one year.

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The federal government wants to spend money in Maine. Specifically, it wants to foot the bill to expand Medicaid - 100 percent for the first three years, then taper to 90 percent by 2020, as laid out in the Affordable Care Act.

In a press call, White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said there are three good reasons for states to accept these funds: "It would help thousands of their residents, it would reduce the rate of uninsured, and it would help states save money in uncompensated care costs."

Earnest said at least 28,000 Mainers would get insurance coverage under the expansion, if not double or even triple that. He was joined on the call by state Rep. Linda Sanborn, a Gorham Democrat, who points out that Maine's poorest - those below the federal poverty level - were intended to get insurance coverage through the expansion, so there are no subsidies for them to buy insurance on the new online marketplace.

"Now they fall into a gap because Maine hasn't accepted the federal government's offer," Sanborn said. "Thousands of uninsured Mainers are being left out due to politics."

Those in favor of expanding Medicaid say it's a moral issue, but economics are also at play. Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who was also a part of the White House Press call, said accepting federal dollars would pump money into Maine's economy at a critical time, given that one of the state's largest employers, Maine Medical Center, recently laid off 50 employees and cut 175 vacant positions.

"There are millions of dollars at stake that would be coming to Maine monthly, and over the next yea,r to provide coverage, that create jobs and contribute to the financial health of the hospitals," Brennan said.

But there's a flip side to that economic argument, expansion opponents say. Gov. LePage vetoed a bipartisan bill to expand Medicaid last June because, he says, the system is unsustainable.

His press secretary Adrienne Bennett says Maine already expanded Medicaid more than a decade ago, and the state can't afford to expand it further - even if most of the bill is covered by the federal government. "We just paid off nearly a billion dollars of welfare debt to the hospitals which was owed to them," Bennett says.

While the debate on whether to expand Medicaid in Maine is ongoing, there's a new quandary about changes under the Affordable Care Act. After being criticized for failing to live up to his promise that people could keep their existing insurance plans if they wanted to, President Obama offered a mea culpa last week. The President announced that those cancelled insurance policies can extend for one year.

But there's a problem with that pitch, because those insurance policies "don't meet the minimum standards of the Affordable Care Act, but also Maine law," says Democratic Rep. Sharon Treat, of Hallowell, speaking at an Affordable Care Act Oversight Committee meeting on Monday.

The decision on whether Maine will take Obama up on his offer falls on the shoulders of the Maine Bureau of Insurance. Treat says she's frustrated that Superintendent Eric Cioppa hasn't engaged in any verbal conversations and is only communicating through written notes. Legislative analyst Colleen McCarthy Reid read from a letter from the Bureau.

"They just indicate that they're in process of learning more about the details of the change, determining its effect on the Maine insurance Marketplace, and determining what the appropriate state - our state response - on a regulatory basis, might be," McCarthy said.

A spokesman for the Bureau of Insurance says staff is doing a thorough review and will provide updates as soon as possible.


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