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Groups Sue Feds to Block Maine Medicaid Cuts
02/21/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

A Maine-based legal advocacy group has filed suit against the federal government on behalf of low-income, disabled Mainers who have had their Medicaid benefits cut. Last year, Maine Gov. Paul LePage sought federal permission to cut or reduce state Medicaid coverage. In January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services approved some of the cuts, which affect about 20,000 Mainers. Six-thousand of them are represented in the lawsuit, which alleges the cuts are illegal. Patty Wight has more.

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It's not easy for states to place limits on Medicaid coverage. But the federal goverment does allow it under certain circumstances - say, if a state has a budget deficit. And that's the situation Maine was in when it requested the cuts last year.

Gov. LePage sought to save the state $20 million. The federal government denied most of that request, but did come back with a waiver that saved the state about $4 million. But some say even that move is illegal.

"My name's Jack Comart. I'm the litigation director of Maine Equal Justice Partners." Maine Equal Justice Partners is a non-profit legal aid organization, which represents a group of five Maine residents suing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for eliminating their Medicaid coverage.

Those five, in turn, represent a class of about 6,000 additional disabled or senior Mainers who face cuts or reductions in coverage that go into effect March 1. The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order to block the cuts from happening.

Comart says states can only scale back Medicaid coverage so much, and the cuts can't affect those making less than 133 percent of the poverty level, or those who are disabled.

"And in this case, the plaintiffs are disabled and they're also all below 133 percent of poverty," Comart says. "So for both reasons, the secretary's action is illegal."

Comart says of the 6,000 other Mainers affected by the cuts, virtually all of them are also below 133 percent of the poverty line. They face losing coverage for things like prescription drugs, co-pays, and monthly premiums.

Speaker of the House Mark Eves says fellow Democrats want to see the waiver repealed.

"Well, when we heard it we were initially surprised, and still are, that CMS went forward with the waiver request from Gov. LePage," Eves says. "We know that because of that decision, it's going to be harder for seniors to afford their prescriptions, see their doctors, put food on their table and provide heat in their homes."

But Assistant House Republican Leader Alexander Willette says the cuts to Medicaid were done in a bipartisan fashion, and though the decision was tough, there was good reason for it: "To cut and curb chronic Medicare overspending," he says. "And we believe that the courts are not the proper forum for policy debates."

But Jack Comart of Maine Equal Justice Partners says the state has not followed the law.

"You know, I understand that the state - the governor - makes certain decisisons - for example, they decided to cut taxes rather than do this," he says. "These were choices, and in this case, this was an illegal choice to make. There are legal choices and illegal choices. This was illegal."

Comart says he's optimistic the lawsuit will succeed. He'll get his first clue whether he's right on Friday, when he has a conference with a judge to try to convince the court to block the cuts.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services did not return calls by airtime. A spokesman for Maine's Department of Health and Human Services said it's policy not to comment on pending litigation.



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