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Republicans approve reductions in MaineCare; Democrats object but offer no plan

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Maine House of Representatives cast votes on the supplemental budget

By Peter A. Steele | The Maine Wire

The Maine Senate and House approved Tuesday a Supplemental Budget designed to reduce spending on MaineCare and put the state’s social safety net on a sound footing for the future. Gov. Paul LePage signed the bill on Wednesday morning.

Creating long-term structural reform for welfare programs in the Dept. of Health and Human Services was major goal of Gov. Paul LePage. Using his line-item veto power, LePage refused last month to fill an $83 million hole in the DHHS budget with one-time revenue, as Democrats have done for over a decade.

On final party-line votes of 19-14 in the Senate and 75-61 in the House, Republicans approved structural changes to MaineCare that will lower costs and seek an end to annual budget shortfalls that have plagued state government for years and that have threatened funding for other vital state programs.

LD 1746, the Supplemental Budget bill, was modified significantly by Republicans on the Appropriations Committee from the original proposal submitted by Governor LePage. But they concurred with his position that structural changes are needed to ensure that MaineCare and core state government programs remain sustainable.

Republican legislators noted that Medicaid enrollment has grown by 78 percent since 2002, while Maine’s population grew only 7 percent.  Maine insures 35 percent more of its population through the MaineCare program than the national average, and MaineCare represents 21 percent of all state funding. In 1998, it represented just 12.4 percent.

In 2009, Maine’s per capita Medicaid cost was $1,895 per person—more than $700 over the national average of $1,187.

In one example of how the budget differs from the original proposal, tens of thousands will be unaffected by cuts in the Drugs for the Elderly and the Medicare savings programs. Under the original proposal, approximately 78,000 people would have had their coverage reduced or eliminated.

Under the final proposal, only 1,500 people at the top of the current income guidelines will have their benefit eliminated.

Medicare Part B premiums are now $99.90 a month. Under current law, individuals making under $20,664 a year will have their Part B premiums paid for by MaineCare.

But under the proposal that was passed, individuals earning $19,547 per year or less will continue to have their part B premiums paid for by MaineCare, and some lower-income individuals will have additional benefits covered. To be part of this program, individuals must be federal Medicare enrollees.

In the budget, Republicans also honored their commitment to the General Assistance agreement reached by both political parties in the Supplemental Budget that was passed last month. When that item was line-item-vetoed by the Governor, Republicans pledged to address the issue upon their return.

“The Republican majority will not repeat mistakes made by past legislatures that used one-time revenues to put a Band-Aid on a broken system, hoping the problem will go away,” said Senate President Kevin Raye (R-Washington County). “Rather than avoid difficult decisions and continue an endless string of budget shortfalls, we are setting the priorities required to ensure that MaineCare is sustainable and that our most vulnerable citizens will be protected over the long-term.”

Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney (R-York County) stressed the need to act in the face of the $79 million MaineCare shortfall,” said Senator Courtney. “Republicans were elected to solve problems. That is what we are doing. Difficult choices need to be made, and failure to act is not an option. For years the Democrats have not proposed long-term solutions to this problem that threatens all state government functions.”

“The people of Maine should be very proud of their legislature this evening,” said House Speaker Robert Nutting on Tuesday after the vote. “Passage of the supplemental DHHS budget represents an enormous step toward our goal of getting the state’s fiscal house in order and living within our means. Years of irresponsible expansion of state government programs led to our current financial troubles.”

The structural changes within this budget should prevent future legislatures from having to cover DHHS shortfalls every year, Nutting said. At the same time, they will protect the state’s safety net for those who truly need it, he said.

As expected, Democrats defaulted to their nonstop drumbeat about Republicans trying to hurt seniors, children and families.

They claim that budget cuts that will take away health care from more than 24,000 Maine seniors, children and working families.

They didn’t mention that Democrats have over the past decade greatly expanded eligibility in welfare programs far beyond national averages.  Republicans were simply reducing the eligibility in some programs to bring them more in line with the rest of the country.

“The Republican budget cuts will do unnecessary harm to seniors and working families across our state,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo (D-Lewiston), the lead Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. “No Maine family should have to choose between putting food on the table or paying for medicine.”

Well known for her incendiary and unsubstantiated remarks, Rotundo offered no examples of families or individuals that will have to make such choices.

The Democrats complained that the GOP proposal reduces access to medicine and medical care for more than 5,000 seniors; cuts Head Start early childhood education programs for 216 children and child care credits for 1,400 families; cuts funding to home visitation programs that help prevent domestic violence for 750 families in crisis; eliminates health care for 7,000 19- and 20-year-olds; and reduces taxpayer-funded revenue for women’s health and family planning by $400,000.

However, the Democrats failed to mention that Maine’s most-generous-in-the-nation welfare system provides eligibility levels for programs that far exceed the national average. Some of Maine’s eligibility levels are stratospheric compared to national averages.

Under Democratic rule, seniors making 350% of the federal poverty level—as much as $57,000 a year—were eligible for Maine’s prescription drug program. The Republicans’ proposal merely reduced the eligibility so it is closer to the national average.

Democrats also failed to mention that they had to get a waiver from the federal government during the Angus King administration so they could expand Maine’s free health care to include 19- and 20-year-olds. Only 15 states provide coverage for that age group.

With the Republican-approved health-insurance reform passed last year, 19- and 20-year-olds will be able to purchase their own health care for $100 to $200 a month.

Democrats also neglected to mention that the welfare system they created provides benefits to 361,000 Mainers on Medicaid. If Maine were at the national average, only 260,000 Mainers would be eligible for Medicaid.

A statement from the Democrats claims the Republican budget “includes nearly $10 million in cuts that are in violation of federal law,” but they did not elaborate.

“This budget is riddled with disingenuous savings, hidden costs, and illegal proposals,” said Rep. Mark Eves (D-North Berwick), the lead House Democrat on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. 

Despite his inflammatory rhetoric, he did not provide examples of any “disingenuous savings, hidden costs and illegal proposals.”

During the floor debate, Democratic lawmakers repeatedly called the GOP cuts “unnecessary and harmful,” but they did not elaborate why. The Democrats offered no alternative plan; they just argued that a $50 million revenue surplus should be used to prevent cuts to seniors and children.

For over a decade, Democrats have refused to consider welfare reform, choosing instead to use one-time revenue to feed the ever-growing DHHS juggernaut.

The Democrats have loudly criticized Governor LePage and the Republicans for using “anecdotal” evidence to bolster their support for welfare reform. But the Democrats whipped out plenty of their own emotional anecdotes to oppose welfare reform. Examples include:

• “No senior with Lou Gehrig’s disease should be forced to choose between their medicine and heating their home,” said Rep. Paulette Beaudoin (D-Biddeford), during the floor debate. “We shouldn’t be taking money from the purse of an 84-year-old grandmother with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s wrong, and I won’t support it.”

• Rep. Ann Peoples, D-Westbrook, said: “I don’t believe a working parent in Westbrook should have to quit a job because they no longer have child care. Mainers should be working their way into the middle class, not falling out of it.”

• “Without jobs or income parents must humble themselves to ask for help,” said Rep. Helen Rankin (D-Hiram). “There comes a time when you have to swallow your pride just to survive.”

Despite the inflammatory and unsubstantiated rhetoric spewing from the Democrats, Republicans forged ahead with their plan to create long-term structural reform in DHHS. Republicans even stood strong against the onslaught of Democratic activists, social service agencies and protestors that storm the State House whenever cuts to welfare are proposed.

“We’ve passed five budgets with two-thirds majorities in the 125th Legislature,” Nutting said. “This time, while Republicans took their responsibility to govern seriously. Democrats offered no solutions other than passing the buck and letting the next legislature deal with our financial problems. I am very proud of the Republican majority for demonstrating leadership on this difficult issue.”

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently producer for the Howie Carr Show. Follow him on Twitter @Stevie_Rob or send him an email at Steve@HowieCarrShow.com.

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