AUGUSTA — U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said Tuesday that she could empathize with the Legislature and Gov. Paul LePage as they attempt to plug a $220 million budget gap at the Department of Health and Human Services.
However, Pingree, who met with the governor privately Tuesday morning, continued to assert that a portion of LePage's proposed budget is likely illegal.
LePage invited Pingree to his office to seek her assistance in obtaining so-called Maintenance of Effort waivers in the federal health care law. Last week, the administration learned it faced long odds to obtain the waivers, which represent about $37 million in cuts in the governor's budget proposal.
Pingree recently told the Sun Journal she believed the waivers were unlikely because they ran counter to the goals of the Affordable Care Act, which seeks to expand Medicaid coverage in 2014.
LePage has said he wants to align Maine's eligibility with the federal law. To do so, he would have to obtain permission from the federal government.
Pingree acknowledged that LePage asked her to help persuade U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to green-light the exemptions.
Last week, the director of the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services sent a letter to Maine lawmakers indicating federal law requires that waivers be issued for experimental projects that expand Medicaid health coverage, not for budgetary purposes.
Since then, LePage has urged lawmakers to ratify his plan, anyway. He's also reached out to the state's congressional delegation seeking their assistance.
"The governor and I had a very honest conversation about the problem he and the Legislature have," said Pingree, adding that she and LePage continue to disagree on the issue of Medicaid waivers.
Pingree said the reason Congress passed the Affordable Care Act with the Maintenance of Effort provision was to make sure states continued to provide health care coverage to low-income individuals until the federal health care law kicks in in 2014.
"In some ways, (LePage) and some others want to characterize this as a welfare program," Pingree said. "But it's a basic safety net for people. It's also how doctors, nurses and hospitals get paid. Without that level of payment and coverage, the (hospitals) are going to be in very tough shape."
She added, "I don't know that the federal government is going to say to Maine that it's OK to put people back out on the streets with no health care coverage. That's really not the solution to the problem."
Pingree's comments highlight the ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans on Medicaid. Republicans worry that the program is inefficient and unsustainable, and believe that some individuals are spurning private insurance in favor of taxpayer-funded health care.
Democrats, meanwhile, have sought to expand Medicaid coverage because, Pingree said, some large businesses reduced their health care benefits to employees to the point that Medicaid was the best option.
Adrienne Bennett, LePage's spokeswoman, said the meeting with Pingree was positive. She added that the governor still believed the waivers were obtainable.
Bennett said the governor had already met with U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Susan Collins, R-Maine. On Jan. 17, LePage met with Collins and DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew to discuss the waiver issue.
Last week, in a written statement, Collins stopped short of endorsing the MOE waiver, saying it was "imperative for the federal Department of Health and Human Services to work closely with the state to maintain the safety net that protects our most vulnerable citizens."
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, also in a statement, said the waiver provision in the health care law was unfair to states such as Maine that had adopted higher eligibility standards than other states.
LePage hoped to discuss the issue with U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine.
Bennett said LePage was hoping to speak with Sebelius on Tuesday.
The Legislature's budgetary committee will continue to work on the governor's proposal.