AUGUSTA — Newly sworn-in state Attorney General William Schneider said Tuesday that he was ready to add Maine to the list of more than 20 states challenging the constitutionality of the federal health care law.
Schneider would not say when he planned to join the lawsuit, but he indicated an announcement was imminent. At least three other states with newly elected Republican governors and attorney generals announced Tuesday that they too were challenging the law.
That news, along with a pending symbolic vote by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives to repeal the law, prompted Democratic lawmakers in Augusta to suggest Schneider's decision was part of a coordinated national effort by Republicans to undercut President Barack Obama's most significant legislative achievement.
Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the House minority leader said Tuesday that joining the suit was politically motivated and failed to address the serious issues facing health care, such as affordable insurance and accessibility.
"Clearly this is a nationally organized effort to undermine the implementation of the Affordable Care Act," Cain said. "That's happening everywhere."
"I think we're better off sticking to the policy discussion rather than the politics of this," she said.
Cain had a similar response to a bill submitted by Rep. Rich Cebra, R-Naples, that would prohibit enforcement of the health care law by state and federal agencies, imposing fines of up to $5,000 and jail time.
Cain said the proposal was a "political stunt," and would create a slippery slope if enacted.
"But the reality is, if you're going to start criminalizing any implementation of federal law, where do you start and where do you end?" Cain asked.
Cebra, who has submitted more than 40 bills this session, acknowledged there was "a symbolic aspect" to his proposal, but said it was grounded in his belief that Maine too often surrendered its rights to federal mandates and funding.
"It's a violation of our 10th Amendment," he said. "The federal government doesn't have a right to mandate that individuals purchase something."
Cebra was referring to the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, the provision requiring all individuals to purchase health insurance. The legal challenge against the health care law takes direct aim at the provision.
On Tuesday, Schneider said the mandate was the reason he wanted Maine to join lawsuits in either Virginia or Florida. One of the legal challenges is expected to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
Schneider acknowledged that the health care system needed overhaul.
"I know that health care system in general is in a crisis, but I don't want to see that fix rest upon an unconstitutional foundation," he said.
Proponents say the mandate works to keep costs down because healthy people would be in the insurance pool. But opponents say the measure illegally forces people to buy a product.
The mandate was a key component in the Massachusetts health care law, which was advanced by former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney.
Former Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, last year declined Republican requests to join the health care lawsuit. Mills cited previous Supreme Court rulings and said the challenge could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars if it reached the Supreme Court.
But Schneider said the cost would be much lower, "in the thousands." He said the state could join the Florida suit by signing or writing an amicus brief, or by asking a judge to join the legal challenge.
"I'm interested in joining in the best way for Maine, whenever it's most effective for us to join and least expensive for us to join," he said. "I really think we're going to find a way to do it that has minimal cost."
Earlier Tuesday, the Maine People's Alliance delivered more than 2,600 postcards to Gov. Paul LePage urging him and Schneider to scrap their plans to join the lawsuit.
The group, which favors a single-payer health care system, said the cards were signed by 500 health care professionals and 700 small business owners.
Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert was among those sending the governor a card.
"On behalf of the PEOPLE I was elected to represent, I ask you not to join a lawsuit attacking the Affordable Care Act," Gilbert wrote. "Joining the lawsuit will cost the PEOPLE of Maine and of the City of Lewiston $400,000 and, if successful, would deny health care for thousands of Mainers including members of my own family. Governor, if it truly is 'PEOPLE BEFORE POLITICS,' you will honor my request."
Lewiston resident Shanna Rogers spoke during the MPA's news conference. Rogers, a single mother with three children, said her insurance company tried to deny her coverage when her twin boys were diagnosed with "twin to twin transfusion syndrome." She said her insurance company advised her to allow her pregnancy “to expire naturally” rather than pay for life-saving surgery.
"After three medical battles, four denials of treatment, I am well versed in the way big insurance companies do business," Rogers said. "Placing profits above people is business as usual."
Demeritt said that the governor is committed to joining the lawsuit despite the MPA protest.
"Maine is one of the most expensive places to buy insurance in the country," he said. "We have too many regulations and too many mandates. What we need to do is get back to a point where doctors and consumers can make their own decisions and get back to the point where there's competition."
Demeritt said the health care law would increase insurance costs for small businesses. He declined to address the MPA's claim that more than 700 small business owners had sent postcards urging the governor not to join the Florida lawsuit.
"I'm not going to speak to what they're claiming," he said. "If anything it's not surprising that people are ready to give up on the private system because it's failing so badly in Maine. Paul LePage isn't ready to give up on the private system."
Demeritt said an alternative health care proposal was a priority for LePage.
"You have to provide a safety net for when people with pre-existing conditions don't fit into the private market," he said. "The governor is prepared to work on that."
Maine has received more than $23 million in federal funding to implement the health care law, according to a report by a bipartisan panel created by former Gov. John Baldacci. The panel recently recommended that the state begin implementing the law, including the insurance exchanges that are supposed to be in place by 2014.
Blocking implementation at the state level is considered a key strategy in Republican attempts to overturn the law.
The Republican-run U.S. House postponed a Wednesday vote to repeal the health care law because of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz, but it's expected to take up the matter later this month.