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Republicans and Democrats in Legislature Set to Battle Over Medicaid
05/10/2012   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Majority Republicans in the Maine Legislature are supporting a plan that will remove 24,000 people currently benefitting from state health care programs. Republican leaders say Maine is 35 percent above the national average when it comes to the number of state residents receiving Medicaid benefits. But Democrats argue the GOP lawmakers fails to recognize the disproportionate levels of poverty and elderly residents living in the state. Now both parties are going their separate ways over the last budget revision of the session.

After five unanimous reports on budgets, Democrats and Republicans on the Appropriations Committee agree that they can no longer agree on a consensus strategy to close an $83 million shortfall at the state Department of Health and Human Services. Majority Republicans have crafted their own budget plan to inch Maine closer to the national average when it comes to the number of state residents receiving Medicaid benefits. At just over 300,000 people, Maine is 35 percent higher than the rest of the country. But minority Democrats argue that means eliminating benefits for 24,000 people, on top of the 14,000 who lost Medicaid benefits earlier this year. Because of that they could support the Republican plan. And since Republicans hold majorities in the House and Senate, Senate President Kevin Raye (R-Perry) said Republicans will go it alone.

"Minority members of the Appropriations Committee have made it clear that they are unwilling to accept the changes necessary for us to honor our obligation to fix a broken and unsustainable MaineCare program," Raye said. "That refusal means the progress depends on action by the Republicans majority."

Rep. Kathleen Chase (R-Wells) on the Appropriations Committee, said the state seems to just keep expanding health care programs without assigning a value on who needs them the most. She likened the increasing demands from poor Mainers for state services to the burgeoning number of handicapped parking signs in the State House parking lot.

"Out here in the parking lot where you have the people with handicapped parking plates and the people that have medical issues that can pull in and park closer because they need to get in, they can't walk as far," Chase said. "Well what we've done over the years is just put more and more and more special parking places out there so now the whole parking lot is full of those type of things and the people who really need to park close can't get there anymore."

The budget includes $49 million in new revenues that wasn't projected for the state when the DHHS budget was presented to legislators by the governor. Republicans are using that money to fully fund general assistance allocations to Maine cities and towns over the former objections of Gov. Paul LePage. They also included nearly $4 million for E-911 improvements, $10 million dollars for budget stabilization funds and about $3 million for a disproportionate share payment that covers certain mentally ill populations. There is also Republican language that would raise the amount of retirement income that's not subject to income taxes and exempt taxes on income earned by active duty military personnel. But advocates for the poor such as Ana Hicks of Maine Equal Justice Partners, said the Republican budget mostly impacts the poor, the elderly and the very young.

"We still see these changes as devastating and very dangerous, close to 24,000 people will lose health care coverage that they have now and close to 4,000 seniors will lose help that they get to help pay for medical expenses," Hicks said.

A $2 million state cut to the Head Start program that assists pre-schoolers prompted a running debate on the Appropriations Committee between Rep. David Webster (D-Freeport) and Sen. Roger Katz (D-Augusta) after Webster challenged Katz assertion that no children would be affected by the cut.

"How is that possible you can cut services and not have an impact on the families," asked Webster.
"The idea here is not cutting services but cutting funding," replied Katz.
"You want them to continue the services without the funding," said Webster.
"We're confidnant that the agencies involved can find efficiencies to serve the same number of kids witha little less money," Katz said.

Rick McCarthy, representing Maine's Head Start programs, said Katz is simply wrong.

"They proposing a $2 million cut and that is going to mean that hundreds of kids won't get served," McCarthty said. "The Maine Children's Alliance best estimate is 216 and we we run the numbers it;s 200 to 250 kids would lose services under this proposed cut."

Democrats said they will craft a competing budget proposal that leaves more Mainers on programs they perceive as vital. State Sen. Richard Rosen (R-Bucksport) said claims by Democrats that Republicans were capitulating to demands from Gov. LePage for structural Medicaid changes were laughable and that the GOP budget did not reflect all of the governor's goals.

"There were significant changes, I mean there were some proposals that were rejected outright, the $60 million cuts to the PNMIs and many of these others that you see here today. So this has been significantly modified," said Rosen.

The House will take up the budget proposals next week.


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