AUGUSTA – Twenty-six Republican state representatives delivered an open letter to House Speaker Mark Eves (D-North Berwick) Wednesday morning asking him to recuse himself from any vote on Medicaid expansion due to his potentially conflicting role as director of business development for a major Medicaid beneficiary.
“We, the undersigned members of the Maine House of Representatives, write to respectfully request that you recuse yourself from all votes pertaining to Medicaid expansion, and order your staff in the Speaker’s office to halt all activities promoting legislation to expand Medicaid enrollment in Maine,” the letter states. “Mr. Speaker, you are a good and honorable man, and that is why we believe you will do the right thing. We urge you to restore public respect for your office and for this legislative body. Please recuse yourself from voting on this issue.”
Signatories on the letter include: Reps. Deb Sanderson (R-Chelsea), Lawrence Lockman (R-Amherst), Jeff Gifford (R-Lincoln), Michael McClellan (R-Raymond), Heather Sirocki (R-Scarborough), Paul Davis (R-Sangerville), Mel Newendyke (R-Litchfield), Dale Crafts (R-Lisbon Falls), Richard Malaby (R-Hancock), Ray Wallace (R-Dexter), Windol Weaver (R-York), David Johnson (R-Eddington), Jethro Pease (R-Morrill), Tom Winsor (R-Norway), Gary Knight (R-Livermore Falls), Amy Volk (R-Scarborough), Brian Duprey (R-Hampden), Roger Reed (R-Hermon), Wayne Parry (R-Arundel), Paul Bennett (R-Kennebunk), Rick Long (R-Sherman), Peter Johnson (R-Greenville), Allen Nadeau (R-Fort Kent), and James Gillway (R-Searsport).
The Maine Wire has reported exclusively on Speaker Eves conflicting roles as the top advocate for Medicaid expansion and director of business development for Sweetser, a social services agency that receives tens of millions of dollars in Medicaid payments.
Last June, Eves said he had taken a leave of absence from Sweetser. ““I have not received a pay check from Sweetser since January,” he said at the time.
Sweetser President and CEO Carlton D. Pendleton said the decision for Eves to take a leave of absence was made after he was elected to serve as Speaker. According to Pendleton, Sweetser is 80 percent dependent on taxpayer funding, including a sizeable Medicaid-based revenue stream.
According to Sweetser’s most recent tax filing, the organization took in $63,334,255 from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012. Pendleton made nearly $300,000 in that period.
Following The Maine Wire’s report on Eves possible conflict, Pendleton issued a statement via Sweetser’s website stating unequivocally that Eves was no longer an employee.
However, emails obtained pursuant to a Freedom of Access Act request subsequently revealed that Eves in fact returned to employment with Sweetser in July, immediately following the end of the legislative session.
A spokeswoman for Eves denied any conflict of interest and clarified that his leave of absence is only in effect when the Legislature is in session.
Many of the representatives who signed the letter held a press conference at the State House Wednesday to express their concerns.
“We represent 26 House Republicans who think Speaker of the House Mark Eves should refrain from advocating for and voting on, any proposal to expand Maine’s medical welfare program, known as Medicaid or MaineCare,” said Rep. Lockman.
“Speaker Eves has not been forthcoming about his ongoing employment with a major beneficiary of the very Medicaid expansion proposal he is fighting for,” said Lockman. “Although the Speaker has repeatedly denied any conflict of interest, what else could have prompted him to make the major decision to forgo a paycheck for several months?”
Rep. Sanderson pointed to Eves’ vote on the Legislative Council during the October screening session. In that session, Eves voted to allow reconsideration of a Medicaid expansion proposal despite joint legislative rules which typically prohibit such an action.
“By his own admission, he was, at the time, receiving a paycheck from Sweetser,” said Sanderson. “So at the same time he was getting paid by a major expansion beneficiary, he was voting to ignore Joint Legislative Rules and allow reconsideration of Medicaid expansion,” she said.
According to an analysis of Sweetser’s past tax filings, payments from Medicare and Medicaid amount to more than half of the organization’s total revenue. Sweetser’s 2001 Form 990 indicates that the organization, which files as a “private school,” brought in $49.7 million in gross receipts. Of that revenue, $28.1 million derived from Medicare and Medicaid payments.
Sweetser maintains a strong lobbying effort, spending $70,000 or more each year on legislative education. Although the organization has not filed any lobbying paperwork for this legislative session, state records indicate that it did lobby on the first Medicaid expansion. According to its website, “Sweetser perennially urges lawmakers to … provide adequate funding for medication management therapy for individuals who use both MaineCare (Medicaid) and Medicare.”
Following Maine’s first expansion of Medicaid enrollment in 2002, the non-profit saw an increase of 25 percent in Medicare- and Medicaid-related revenue, according to tax documents. The Medicaid expansion proposal presently under consideration is significantly larger than the 2002 expansion, meaning Sweetser’s slice of taxpayer pie could grow even more.
Expanding Medicaid eligibility as Democrats have proposed could mean an increase of $20 million or more in Sweetser’s taxpayer-funded revenue stream, as Medicaid would pay for up to 100,000 new taxpayer-funded clients.
Lockman said the issue has been common knowledge in the State House since last summer, but what prompted lawmakers to write the letter to Eves was the revelation — reported exclusively by The Maine Wire — that Sweetser secured nearly $2.5 million in sole-sourced no-bid contracts last year.
“If I were the Director of Business Development for a large natural gas company that gets no-bid contracts, it would be inappropriate for me to sponsor, advocate for and vote on huge subsidies for natural gas — even though those subsidies might help a lot of people,” said Lockman.
The Speaker’s office did not respond to The Maine Wire’s request for comment on the letter or today’s press conference.
UPDATE: Here’s Speaker Eves’ written response, as provided to Chris Cousins at Bangor Daily News: “As a healthcare professional, I have seen firsthand how important it is for Maine families to have access to a family doctor. I’ve seen firsthand how lack of health care can tear families apart, can bankrupt families and lead families to financial ruin. I care deeply about kids that commit suicide, adults with schizophrenia and their families that struggle daily with the realities of mental illness… And that alone motivates me to fight for health care for Maine people. I will never stop fighting for people to have access to health care or for those who struggle with mental illness. To be clear, those are the reasons why I am deeply committed to accepting federal health care dollars to cover nearly 70,000 Maine people.”