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LePage Touts Hospital Debt Payments amid Calls for Medicaid Expansion
09/18/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Today, Paul LePage fulfilled one of his priorities as governor: The state paid back more than $183 million in outstanding Medicaid bills to Maine hospitals. While Democrats applaud the occasion, they say the achievement leaves the job only half done. As Patty Wight reports, Democrats say now the state needs to help make healthcare more affordable, and expanding Medicaid would go a long way toward that goal.

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LePage Touts Hospital Debt Payments amid Calls for Listen
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The hospital debt started accruing in the mid-2000s, when the state expanded its Medicaid program - known as MaineCare - but failed to increase hospital payments to match the new patient load. Gov. LePage told a crowd gathered for a press conference (above) at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston that discussing the debt situation with credit rating agencies was painful.

"Quite frankly, it was a real embarrassment the last three years to go down to the stock market and go down to Standard and Poors and Moody, and have to discusss with them the fact that we had a debt that we had no plans or intention of paying off," LePage said.

The state payment will trigger a federal match of more than a $300 million. Central Maine Health Care CEO Peter Chalke says the payment releases a pressure valve on hospitals that often forced them to borrow money, "oftentimes to borrow money to meet payroll, to delay purchases of needed medical equipment, to postpone necessary projects, and in many cases, to reduce staff."

LePage says paying the hospitals is one of his proudest achievements as governor. He was so thrilled that not even an attempt to derail the press conference ruffled him. Just as the governor began to speak, a man dressed as Uncle Sam quietly walked in front of the podium and displayed a giant check for more than $1 billion - that's the federal money Maine would receive for the next three years if it expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

The man was escorted away. But later, a woman in the crowd asked the governor why he won't expand Medicaid. "I believe healthcare is a basic human right, and that people shouldn't be suffering because of his politics," says Marie Pineo.
Pineo says she's a single mom with a part-time job and a heart condition, After losing MaineCare coverage earlier this year, she says she now has to pay out-of-pocket for her care.

It's situations like Pineo's that have Democrats pushing for Maine to expand Medicaid. Lewiston Rep. Peggy Rotundo, a Democrat, says the hospital debt that was resolved Wednesday is symptomatic of a larger issue: "That we take advantage of this federal program so that we can expand healthcare to more people and reduce the responsibilities and costs that hospitals like Central Maine Medical Center have to absorb now when people don't have healthcare insurance."

The Maine Economic Policy Center, a progressive advocacy group, issued a report Wednesday describing the economic impact of Medicaid expansion. Executive Driector Garrett Martin says it would support 4,400 jobs in the state, 1,500 of them in hosptials.

"So it's interesting to note in delivering the check today that both speakers talked about the impact of uncompensated care and bad debt. Well, it turns out if we don't accept federal funds, we're going to be right back where we started."

Gov. LePage declined to discuss Medicaid expansion at the press conference. He says he'll discuss it when Democrats present a plan to fund services for 3,000 elderly and disabled people currently on a waiting list.

Photo: Patty Wight

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