Judge Hears Arguments On Lawsuit To Force Governor To Implement Medicaid Expansion

Nov 7, 2018

The Maine Attorney General's office Wednesday argued in support of a lawsuit that seeks to force the LePage administration to implement Medicaid expansion.  Though Attorney General Janet Mills has recused herself from the case, the governor-elect was in Cumberland County Superior Court to hear arguments. Mills promised on the campaign trail to implement the voter-approved law if elected. But the group behind the lawsuit says it's still important to proceed with the case.

Before the hearing got underway Wednesday morning, Mills reiterated her support for Medicaid expansion. "I favor Medicaid expansion," she told reporters. "I intend to accomplish Medicaid expansion with existing funds on day one."

As Maine's Attorney General, Mills identified new tobacco settlement money as a funding source for the citizen's initiative approved two years ago.  And even though the governor-elect has pledged to implement the law in January, Maine Equal Justice Partners is still pursuing its lawsuit to force expansion.  

Executive Director Robyn Merrill says there are two reasons:  one, people need coverage immediately; and two, she says, it "sends a message in terms of what the citizen's initiative process is supposed to mean.  It's supposed to mean something.  And it's really important that we hold the executive branch accountable for upholding the laws." 

The lawsuit is back in Superior Court after making its way up to Maine's Supreme Judicial Court last summer.  In August, the Law Court ordered the LePage administration to file federal paperwork to begin implementation. 

It also returned the case to Superior Court for Justice Michaela Murphy to resolve lingering questions, including the law's start date, which, according to Robyn Merrill, was in early July.

"We're making very clear to the court that we want to preserve retroactive coverage for people back to July 2nd," Merrill says.

Justice Murphy must also decide whether Medicaid expansion can move forward without a bill to fund it.  The Legislature passed a bill in June, but it was vetoed by Gov. LePage. 

Assistant Attorney General John Bolton argued in court Wednesday that funding is available, and the LePage administration can't use the lack of a legislative bill as an excuse not to implement. 

"They do not have the ability to decline to exercise duly enacted statutes based on policy objections or based on concerns that the legislation is fiscally unwise," Bolton said.

"I think it's important to just remember exactly why we're here," said Patrick Strawbridge, the attorney representing the LePage administration. He told the court that if the Medicaid expansion ballot had included a funding mechanism, the LePage administration would have had no legal objection to raise.

"But it did not include a funding mechanism," he said. "And so it was widely understood, and it was made explicit to voters, that further legislative action in the form of an implementing appropriation was going to be necessary."

The law can't move forward without it, argued Strawbridge.  With oral arguments now closed, Justice Murphy is expected to issue a decision  soon. 

 This story was updated Nov. 7, 2018 at 4:34 p.m. ET.