Maine Gov. Paul LePage touts his hospital repayment plan in Auburn today.
The first stop was Roopers Beverage and Redemption Center in Auburn, where bottles of Crown Royal are sold alongside chips and soda. Speaking to reporters, Gov. LePage defended his position to veto what he calls "all bad bills" until his plan to repay the hospitals is passed.
"This is a time - it's not going to be any better time - to pay our bills," he said. "And if we wait any longer we're going to have to pay more money out of the General Fund, because the federal government is putting less and less money of federal funds in."
Under the plan, the state would float a bond to repay the hospitals and then pay off that bond with future liquor sales. Paul Landry likes the idea. Landry (left, in photo at left) is the owner of Fish Bones American Grill in Lewiston.
"I think the best thing for Lewiston-Auburn, and any community across Maine that has hospitals, when the hospitals are flush, when they're doing well, they've been supported, they're able to give back to the community," Landry says.
The state's Medicaid debt is hardly a new problem. It's been growing over the past decade. Laird Covey, president of Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, says 10 years ago the hospital was owed about $600,000. Now, that debt has risen to $51 million.
A few blocks away, St. Mary's Hospital is owed another $30 million. And Covey says that has consequences for both people and programs.
"We're constantly looking at reducing positions. We've been freezing pay. We've been unable to spend what we really need on capital initiatives," he says. "Every day and every week we're looking to consolidate positions, and we're constantly shrinking the size of our workforce. And it's very urgent for us."
Covey says paying off the debt would allow CMMC to stop relying on a line of credit to meet its payroll, something he says many other Maine hospitals are doing. And, he says, it would allow the hospital to take care of its other bills. There's just one problem.
"If it's constitutional, I'm happy to consider supporting it. If it's not constitutional, then we're heading down a dead end road and let's find a solution that does work," says Democratic Sen. John Cleveland, (left) of Auburn.
Cleveland, along with other members of his party, aren't convinced that the governor can legally issue revenue bonds to pay back the hospitals. Cleveland says Maine's attorney general told him this week that it can't be done, although she has not issued a formal opinion. Democrats are also accusing LePage of holding voter-approved bonds hostage until he wins approval for his hospital debt plan.
"I am not threatening anybody. I'm not in a tantrum," LePage said. "I'm not doing anything other than simply this: Let's pay our bills."
Gov. LePage says he'd be happy to authorize the voter approved bond package, along with his revenue bond, if Democrats come on board. His plan will get a public hearing Monday at the State House.
Photos by Susan Sharon.