As a freshman legislator, I have been hired by the voters in my district to be their voice at the State House in Augusta. One of my responsibilities is to hear public testimony on legislative proposals that come before the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.
Recently, my committee heard very emotional testimony about the impact of proposed budget cuts to the Maine Center on Deafness. That agency provides services to Maine's deaf community.
A 13-year-old girl, who I will call "Emily," was born deaf. Thanks to the help her family received from MCD, Emily learned American Sign Language and, with the assistance of an interpreter, she is now a straight-A student in 7th grade. In Emily's words during her public testimony, the Maine Center on Deafness "gave us a gift that no one could ever replace, the ability of a mother having a conversation with her daughter knowing what she was saying."
I am appalled that the social safety net that protects Emily and others with similar challenges has been stretched to the breaking point. In a state budget that spends over $6 billion per biennium, why in the world are we even considering a line-item budget cut of $170,000 for a program that serves Maine's most vulnerable citizens?
To find the answer to that question, legislators need look no further than the explosive growth and rampant abuse of Maine's Medicaid programs, known collectively as MaineCare.
Over the past 10 years, the Legislature and the previous administration lowered eligibility requirements to such a degree that MaineCare enrollment mushroomed from 200,000 to over 340,000. That number includes able-bodied young adults, as well as others who would not qualify for Medicaid in most other states. At 27 percent of our population, we have the third-highest Medicaid enrollment in the nation.
MaineCare expenditures now consume one of every four dollars the state spends, twice as much as just over a decade ago. In a word, MaineCare is cannibalizing the rest of the budget and threatens to devour every other responsibility of state government.
Because MaineCare is a joint federal/state program, there are lots of strings attached to those federal Medicaid dollars. And now the feds are telling us we are locked into the current level of spending and enrollment. Simultaneously, federal matching funds as a percentage of total spending are in steady decline, leaving Maine taxpayers holding the bag for maintaining welfare programs we cannot afford to pay for without crushing and destructive tax increases.
To give you some idea of the absurdity of what the feds are requiring of Maine taxpayers, talk to any medical professional who works in or around a hospital emergency room in Maine. The problem of ER "frequent flyers" is well-known and well-documented. These are folks who make monthly or even weekly visits to the ER for minor ailments because it's "free." Some even call an ambulance just to get a free ride downtown.
According to the Maine Hospital Association, MaineCare recipients are twice as likely as the uninsured to be frequent flyers. Under current Medicaid rules, we are not allowed to rely on our Maine-bred common sense (a modest co-pay, perhaps?) to rein in this unconscionable waste of valuable resources that occurs on a daily basis across our state.
The cost of providing free MaineCare coverage to able-bodied 19- and 20-year-olds is $16 million per year and the feds have told us we can't roll back or reduce that coverage.
And what about the $8 million per year we spend on transportation costs for drug addicts to receive methadone treatment? Or the 84 Lewiston general assistance recipients who lied about their employment status in order to get benefits?
I will not sit idly by while Maine's most vulnerable citizens are kicked to the curb by a broken and dysfunctional welfare system that enables irresponsible behavior. We have to push back, and push back hard, against federal Medicaid rules that have turned the safety net into a high-priced hammock.
Republicans in the Maine Legislature will fight to protect Emily and others like her. But to be successful, we need the cooperation of the federal government as well as the Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature.
This is my sincere and heart-felt plea:
House Speaker Eves and Senate President Alfond must prevail upon their respective caucuses to join with Gov. LePage and Republican legislators to fix Maine's broken welfare system, to ensure that Emily and others like her receive the kind of competent, compassionate assistance that has meant so much to her and her family.
Rep. Lawrence E. Lockman, R-Amherst, serves on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.