LEWISTON — Saying it was a good day, Gov. Paul LePage symbolically paid $38.1 million in back debt to Central Maine Medical Center on Wednesday.
"As a governor, it's embarrassing to watch your hospitals lay people off because you are not paying your bills or to watch hospitals delay needed services and projects that should be done to provide better quality health care because we owe them the money," LePage told a crowd in the lobby of CMMC. "I am so proud. If I never accomplish anything else in life, we paid the hospitals."
LePage presented two large symbolic checks to CMMC CEO Peter Chalke, one for the $38.1 million owed to Central Maine Healthcare and a second one that included the money owed to CMHC's other hospitals — $1.9 million to Bridgton Hospital and $3.4 million to Rumford Hospital.
He presented a similarly symbolic $9.4 million check to Inland Hospital in Waterville earlier in the day.
Chalke said the real, cashable checks being held by State Controller Terry Brann were the ones he was interested in.
Adrienne Bennett, LePage's press secretary, said Brann had five checks that were too large to be distributed electronically or to be sent through the mail. Brann delivered two by hand Wednesday.
"He's actually holding them, in his hand right now, and he cannot let go of them unless it is to the authorized person at the hospital," Bennett said.
Brann said three other hospitals collected their checks in Augusta on Wednesday: Eastern Maine Medical Center picked up its $74.7 million check, Maine General Regional Medical Center took its $47.6 million check and Maine Medical Center picked up its $81.9 million check.
The rest, a total of $490 million, were delivered via electronic transfer to Maine hospitals Wednesday. It represented $183.5 million in state funds and a matching $306.7 in federal money.
Paying the hospital debt has been a focal point of LePage's administration and an issue he campaigned on in 2010, promising he would get the hospitals paid, if elected.
But LePage stopped short Wednesday of taking up other issues having to do with medical care, despite the best efforts of the Maine People's Alliance.
MPA member Paul Nickerson posed in front of the governor dressed as Uncle Sam with a symbolic $1 billion check, representing federal money that could be used to expand MaineCare. LePage has said he won't accept the money the federal government has offered Maine.
"Uncle Sam is offering him the federal money to fund 70,000 Mainers' health coverage," said Andrew Francis, communications associate for the MPA. "We think (LePage) should take that money and move beyond partisan politics."
Nickerson was moved off stage, and LePage declined to discuss the matter.
"Today is a good day," the governor said. "It's a day of celebration, of paying back debt that started a decade ago. So today, we'll celebrate. Tomorrow, we'll talk about expansion."
The governor said he was open to discussing it.
"I'm always willing to negotiate, to have people come in and put a logical, sensible plan on the table," LePage said. "I've been governor now approaching three years, and from the opposition, I've yet to see that."
State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said the state has been working to pay the hospital debt for the past 10 years.
"But this is a symptom of something that is much larger, which is the affordability of health care," Rotundo said. "It's why we've been pushing so hard for the expansion of MaineCare."
A hospital employee thanked LePage for the money, then added, "Now don't let Anthem put us out of business."
"I'm working on that, too," LePage said.
Anthem Insurance plans to partner with MaineHealth, forcing its customers to use its hospitals. It locks out Central Maine Medical Center, Bridgton Hospital, Rumford Hospital and their affiliated specialists, except in cases of patients seeking emergency care. Also locked out are Mercy Hospital in Portland, York Hospital in southern Maine and Parkview Adventist Medical Center in Brunswick.
Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald said he and other Twin Cities officials worked hard to get the payments.
"I was up in Augusta for the legislative year, testifying at hearings on all this," Macdonald said. "This is really, really important. But now we have to deal with Anthem, so there's a lot still going on."