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LePage Vetoes Medicaid Expansion Bill, But Supporters Encourage Mainers To Enroll Anyway

Steve Mistler
Maine Public

Under the Medicaid expansion law that voters approved last November, Mainers who earn less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level could be eligible for MaineCare, the state's name for its Medicaid program, starting Monday.

But the LePage administration has resisted implementing the law. The Governor is challenging a recent court ruling that orders him to submit an application to the federal government, and Monday he also vetoed a bill that would fund expansion.

But expansion supporters are urging roughly 70,000 low income Mainers to ignore the political uncertainty, and apply for the health care coverage now.

Under the new law, an individual earning less than $16,600 per year, or a family of four earning less than $34,000 a year, could be eligible for Medicaid coverage.

But because the state hasn't taken any steps to actually enroll people in the program, the Department of Health and Human Services may not be able to approve applications.

But Kathy Kilrain del Rio, a policy analyst for Maine Equal Justice Partners, says that should not deter eligible mainers.

"The Department of Health and Human Services must begin to take applications, and it will," says Kilrain del Rio.

The Maine Equal Justice Partners led the ballot initiative that voters approved last year.

During a press conference at Greater Portland Health, Kilrain del Rio urged Mainers who think they're eligible for Medicaid to fill out the 10-page application.

"The sooner people apply, the sooner they got coverage," Del Rio says.

But just how soon is a mystery.

The Governor, who has beat back numerous attempts to expand Medicaid in the Legislature, has done nothing to implement last year's referendum law.

The federal government pays for over 90 percent of the costs for expansion coverage, but LePage has repeatedly said he can't implement the law until the Legislature approves the estimated $50 million a year it's projected to cost the state.

Last week the Legislature passed a $60 million funding bill, but the governor vetoed the bill on Monday, fulfilling a promise he made during his radio address in which he described the proposal as a gimmick pushed by Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon.

"It's just another move by Speaker Gideon to look they're funding Medicaid expansion, but they aren't,” he says.

LePage says the funding bill relies on one-time funding when money for ongoing costs is needed.

But he's also indicated that he will veto just about any other funding mechanism that lawmakers could pass and supporters of Medicaid expansion have so far been unable to muster enough votes to circumvent LePage.

In the interim, the LePage administration has been sued by Maine Equal Justice Partners and several would-be Medicaid recipients in an attempt to force him to implement the law.

Confusing the matter is that LePage’s attorneys have argued that he can't implement the law until the Legislature approves a funding bill. A superior court judge ruled last month that LePage has to implement the law, but the governor's attorneys have appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Maine Equal Justice Partners attorney Charles Dingman said Monday that the oral arguments scheduled for later this month have nothing to do with the push to enroll potential Medicaid recipients now.

"People applying for care is something that should happen because people need the coverage for the care. It's not a litigation strategy," he says.

Supporters say applying for benefits now will help ensure that Mainers who qualify for coverage will eventually get it and, potentially, get retroactive coverage if the political and legal disputes continue until LePage leaves office next year.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.