AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday expressed frustration with the pace and substance of deliberations over his proposed $220 million cuts at the Department of Health and Human Services.
In a highly unusual and unscripted move, LePage walked into the tail end of a joint work session between DHHS staff and the Legislature's budgetary and Health and Human Services committees. The governor did not speak during the session, but as lawmakers broke for lunch, he told reporters that legislators had yet to confront the "economic reality" of the current $120 million DHHS shortfall.
"There's economic emotions, economic mobility and economic reality," LePage said. "Many people in Maine have gotten over the economic emotions. They left. They've gone to economic mobility and they've left the state. We are stuck downstairs with economic reality. To hear what I heard today, (lawmakers on the committees) are still in economic emotions."
He added, "Until they get over the emotions and do the hard work of fixing the $120 million shortfall ... we're not going to get anywhere."
The governor, who came in for about 10 minutes of the meeting, indicated he was frustrated with some lawmakers' questions to DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew. She and her staff appeared before lawmakers Tuesday to discuss the governor's DHHS proposal, which has garnered considerable opposition.
"She sits there at the table, answers a gazillion questions and none of them — none of them — will lead to the resolution of this problem," LePage said.
He added, "Some of the questions I was hearing up there, I was choking. At this level, at this late hour, with the problems that this state is facing."
Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers were right to ask questions about sweeping cuts that could hurt as many as 65,000 Mainers. Rotundo said it would be unwise to rubber-stamp LePage's proposal.
"We are a representative democracy, not a dictatorship," Rotundo said. "This is how the process works."
LePage expressed confidence that the state could pressure the federal government to release the state from a provision in the federal health care law that prevents states from cutting certain Medicaid services.
LePage has said the Legislature would have to pass his $220 million in cuts at DHHS before the state can apply for an exemption from the Affordable Care Act provision known as Maintenance of Effort.
Some states have applied for the MOE waiver, but to date the federal Department of Health and Human Services has not granted one.
According to the state DHHS, three of the five Medicaid programs slated for cuts would require waivers from the federal government.
LePage said he had several discussions with U.S. DHHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about receiving a waiver and he felt confident the state would get the federal OK.
"I've had some conversations with the secretary and I just believe that it's not her intent, nor is it the (Obama) administration's intent, to see any state go bankrupt or go broke," he said.
Mayhew said Tuesday that legislative action could pressure the Obama administration to give Maine more flexibility with the MOE waiver. Several states have taken a similar approach. Earlier this year, 33 Republican governors and governors-elect, including LePage, sent a letter to Sebelius requesting more latitude with the MOE for what they described as the federal law's "unconscionable," "one-size-fits-all approach to Medicaid" that could force states to cut other critical state programs, such as education.
National pundits have speculated that the national move by GOP governors is a coordinated political effort to further attack the federal health care law and bloody the Obama administration.
Regardless, the MOE waiver faces significant hurdles, including a recent decision by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that some believe reaffirmed the law's intent to grant exemptions only if states are undertaking experimental projects designed to expand health care coverage — not to save money or fill budget gaps.
Democrats on Tuesday cited that decision while questioning Mayhew. She said the DHHS changes requiring federal OK wouldn't go into effect until a waiver was granted.
That answer didn't satisfy Rotundo, who said approving the governor's proposal ahead of the MOE waiver was a gamble.
"Secretary Sebelius has been very clear about the circumstances under which she would grant these waivers," Rotundo said. "We are not talking about those circumstances."
She added, "I think it's very risky. Rolling the dice on the backs of our most frail and vulnerable citizens is not right."
Adrienne Bennett, the governor's spokeswoman, said the governor has expressed all along that he wanted lawmakers to act quickly on the budget shortfall which the administration says is costing the state $12 million a month.
Democrats have expressed consistent opposition to the proposal and have questioned whether the administration's figures are accurate. Despite acknowledging the gap, so far Democrats haven't advanced alternatives to the governor's plan.
Rotundo said her caucus had counterproposals and lawmakers shouldn't be looking at the DHHS exclusively to address the shortfall.
"There are ideas that we'll bring forward," she said. "But it's a false choice that in order to save MaineCare we have to adopt the Draconian proposals that the governor has put forward."
Lawmakers will continue evaluating the governor's proposal during work sessions that continue on Jan. 3.