LEWISTON — U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and her five colleagues from the Senate Finance Committee who are working on a bipartisan plan to overhaul the health care system met Thursday with President Barack Obama to discuss their progress.

Later that afternoon, the group held a conference call with governors representing several states, including Maine Gov. John Baldacci, to discuss expanding the Medicaid system as part of the reform legislation.

The group of six centrist senators — three Democrats and three Republicans — has been criticized by some groups on the left for dragging its feet on coming up with a bill and allowing special interests more time to mount opposition to any changes in the current system. Other legislative committees in the House and Senate have worked on separate health care bills, but only the powerful Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over tax policy and Medicaid and Medicare, has worked in a bipartisan fashion.

“We reassured (Obama) that we were working as deliberately and aggressively as possible,” Snowe said in an interview. “It was a very constructive conversation and I think it was very helpful to sit down for a very lengthy meeting.”

Snowe said the president was understanding of the complexities facing the committee and called him “pragmatic in many respects.”

“He’s willing to be flexible and his goals and objectives are to have (the legislation) be budget-neutral, expand coverage and make sure to control costs,” she said. “The exponential growth of health care costs affects everyone. We want to make sure that people can keep the coverage they have and maintain employer-based coverage.”

During the afternoon teleconference, a bipartisan group of 12 governors discussed the potential expansion of Medicaid to help cover a large portion of the 47 million uninsured Americans.

Trish Riley, Baldacci’s director of health policy and finance who took part in the discussion, said the call was “productive and frank.”

“We talked about a lot of different ideas. We were asked what we could do with (Medicaid) and questioned how to provide more flexibility within the program,” she said. “The message was clear, (the senators) want to work for shared responsibility.”

The Medicaid program is funded by state and federal money. A federally mandated expansion would likely include increased costs for some states.

Snowe said including the governors in the policy discussion was crucial.

“It was something I recommended early on, that we connect with (the governors) about it, because it is a very important dimension (of health care policy) and you can’t force unfunded mandates on the states,” she said. “Maine has done an exceptional job at expanding Medicaid to vulnerable populations, and other states haven’t taken those steps.”

She said the committee would continue to talk with a variety of groups even as it tries to pull together a comprehensive bill.

“Getting the facts can make all the difference; it’s important to get firsthand advice and counsel, whether it’s the governors, seniors groups or, of course, the average consumer,” she said.

Snowe said she would be meeting with Mainers to discuss health care over the August break, and would continue to work with the small group of senators she has been meeting with over the past two months.

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