In a 6-1 decision, Maine's highest court has ruled that the LePage administration must begin the process of implementing the Medicaid expansion law that voters passed last year.
But this ruling by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court does not end the legal battle over a law that seeks to provide government-funded health coverage to roughy 70,000 low-income Mainers.
The court's 27-page ruling essentially boils down to two key takeaways. First, the LePage administration must submit an expansion plan to the federal government, as it was ordered to do earlier this year by Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy. Second, Justice Murphy must adjudicate several issues that her narrow order did not address or that were not relevant at the time.
In other words, Thursday's ruling means that the LePage administration must begin implementing Medicaid expansion, even as it continues fighting the law in court.
"We're pleased with this decision for a couple of reasons," said Robyn Merrill, director of Maine Equal Justice Partners.
Maine Equal Justice Partners is the group that helped convince voters to pass Medicaid expansion last year, and that sued the LePage administration when it refused to submit a plan that would allow the state to begin receiving $525 million in annual federal funding.
The administration was ordered to take that step by Justice Murphy, but it then asked the high court to delay Murphy's order and grant an accelerated appeal.
In their ruling released Thursday, six of the seven Supreme Court judges said it was premature to grant an appeal because the lower court now needs to resolve several issues, including whether the Legislature must pass a bill to fund the state's share of expansion before the law can move forward.
But regardless of those outstanding issues, "this means, the Commissioner, the Governor and his administration need to submit the state plan right away," Merrill said.
While the legal battle will continue, Merrill says that Justice Murphy will now have to determine whether the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) missed the July 2 deadline to begin providing care to Mainers who are eligible for Medicaid under the law passed last year.
The LePage administration has not confirmed that it has been denying coverage to people who began applying in July. But last week Merrill's group said it had at least two copies of denial letters from DHHS.
Merrill also says the court's ruling came just in time because of a looming Sept. 30 deadline to submit the state's plan. She said that a failure to apply for the funds by that date could have left the state on the hook for money that the feds are expected to cover for the first quarter of the current fiscal year.
"This is critically important and I know that people — there's just been a lot of anxiety, too, with people who are now eligible who have applied and just don't know what's happening," she said.
Patrick Strawbridge, the LePage administration's attorney, did not respond to a request for an interview. However, he told the Associated Press that he'll be looking for guidance from the trial court to determine how the legal case will proceed.
Updated August 23, 2018 3:30 p.m.