LEWISTON — Hospital officials on Tuesday applauded Gov. Paul LePage's plan to pay them the millions of dollars they're owed. They said they would use the money to pay off debt, make capital improvements and compensate employees.
"We've had to dip into a line of credit to pay our bills," said Chuck Gill, spokesman for Central Maine Healthcare in Lewiston. "Our capital, we basically just did emergency capital — if something breaks down or there's something we really have to buy, that's what we're only doing. We're going to make sure that going forward, we have the resources to pay competitive wages and run through the projects we need to do. So this is a great step forward."
Under the governor's plan, the state would borrow against future liquor sales and use that money to cover the $186 million Maine owes its hospitals for MaineCare services dating back to 2009. That payment would immediately trigger a $298 million federal match, paying in full the $484 million Maine's hospitals have been owed for years, according to the governor's office.
The Legislature must approve the plan.
Hospitals in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties are owed tens of millions of dollars in state reimbursements and federal matches. Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway is owed the least, $6 million. Central Maine Healthcare, which includes Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, Bridgton Hospital and Rumford Hospital, is owed the most, $51 million.
Most tri-county hospital officials said payment would allow them to become more financially stable.
"The first thing we would do is get off two credit lines," said Lee Myles, CEO of St. Mary's Health System in Lewiston.
That system's hospital, St. Mary's Regional Medical Center, is owed nearly $29 million, according to the governor's office.
Hospital officials also said the money would help stimulate the local economy by allowing them to hire or keep employees, make major purchases and move forward with construction projects.
"This is really a jobs bill," Gill said.
Rebecca Ryder, CEO of Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, saw another advantage to LePage's proposal: removing the negative perception Maine has earned for not paying its debt.
"I can tell you, the people I've spoken with in the communities that the hospital serves look at me and say, 'This isn't right. This is the state of Maine; we can do better than this. Can't something be done?'" Ryder said. "So part of it is that perception that the state is in such dire straits that we can't even pay our bills."
FMH is owed $15.4 million from 2007 to 2012.
Although many legislators have long agreed that Maine's hospitals must be paid what they're owed, lawmakers have not agreed on how or where to get that money. Some hospital officials believe the governor's proposal might not be an easy sell, particularly since LePage has separately proposed major cuts in programs, state jobs and municipal revenue-sharing to balance the state budget.
"I think it will get tangled up on that," Myles said. "What's difficult is to see the difference between (the hospital debt proposal and the budget proposal), and I think that's going to be the challenge for our legislative representatives."
He and other hospital leaders said they planned to lobby lawmakers and encourage them to pass LePage's proposal.
"I think it's going to be a matter of education," Ryder said. "Certainly, the hospitals will do what they need to do to make sure the legislators have all the information they need."