Rhetoric heats up over Medicaid expansion

Though a bipartisan bill to expand Medicaid to provide health care coverage for tens of thousands of Mainers was vetoed by the governor in June, expansion of the medical welfare program seems likely to be one of the key battles between Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic lawmakers as the next winter legislative session approaches.

Later today, House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and Assistant Senate Majority Leader Ann Haskell, D-Portland, will hold a news conference urging the governor to “stop making excuses” and approve the expansion. Democrats plan on introducing a bill in January to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid for roughly 50,000 adults without children who earn up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, or $15,281 per year.

EDIT: Here’s the story.

The rhetoric over this fight has been heating up this week: LePage and some Republicans argue that expansion would be a financial train wreck for the state, and would largely benefit young people who make bad health choices at the expense of elderly and disabled Mainers. Democrats argue the expansion would provide much-needed coverage to low-income workers and veterans.

LePage on Monday reiterated his stance against the expansion, which would be fully funded by the federal government for three years before funding from Washington, D.C., ramps down to 90 percent thereafter (LePage says Mainers should be wary of promises of money from the feds and that after three years, the expansion would end up costing Maine an additional $150 million in each biennial budget). LePage cited a study from the Annals of Family Medicine showing that the expansion would result in higher enrollment for young men, smokers and heavy drinkers.

“This study illustrates why we oppose a very costly Medicaid expansion,” said LePage in the release issued Monday morning. “This expansion of welfare would provide services to a younger population, while depleting scarce resources that are critical to care for those who desperately need assistance.”

Democrats are likely to double-down on this line from Eves (in a statement responding to LePage on Monday) at the news conference today: “We are talking about tens of thousands of hardworking Mainers who work as cashiers at grocery and hardware stores, who care for our seniors, and nearly 3,000 veterans who served our country.” They’ll also make the argument that LePage’s veto will mean 25,000 Mainers who previously were covered by the program will lose coverage on Jan. 1.

Medicaid expansion and welfare reform have been the major topics of discussion from both parties ever since a deal was made on the $150 million infrastructure bond package in August. So it’s easy to say they will take center stage in the second legislative session coming up in January.

I’m waiting for a showdown over the supplemental budget. Whether temporary increases in the state sales and lodging taxes mean higher revenue predictions or unexpected circumstances produce funding gaps, the governor and lawmakers will have to come to a deal on what to do about it. And in an election year environment, compromise might be even tougher than usual for two sides that don’t have much common ground to begin with.

Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House.