AUGUSTA — Hoping to tap readily available federal funding that could help fight Maine’s heroin addiction crisis, a pair of state GOP lawmakers is again proposing legislation to expand Maine’s Medicaid system.

Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, who has previously supported an expansion of the state and federally sponsored health insurance program for low-income families and individuals, said his bill, essentially a”placeholder” that was carried over from 2015, will go before the Legislature when it convenes in January.

Among a minority of Republicans who support expansion in Maine, Saviello said Monday he knows his legislation, which is co-sponsored by fellow moderate Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, faces “a hell of a climb.”

An expansion in Maine would add an estimated 60,000 people to the state’s Medicaid rolls.

Meanwhile, the number of documented drug overdoses from heroin or other opioid drugs, including prescription painkillers, has reached its highest level since state medical officials have been keeping track.

Earlier this month in a letter to the state’s top medical professionals urging them to use greater caution in prescribing painkilling medications, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills detailed 21 overdose deaths and noted that on average five people a week are dying from overdoses.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage has five times vetoed bills that would have expanded the state’s Medicaid program, which receives 90 percent federal funding under the federal Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

Supporters of expansion have so far been unable to muster two-thirds support in the Legislature, which would be needed to override another expected LePage veto.

“As Yogi Berra said, ‘It’s déjà vu all over again’,” Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for LePage, wrote in a message to the Sun Journal. “The results were disastrous for Maine when it expanded this kind of welfare in 2002, and now it’s blowing holes in state budgets around the country.”

Bennett said Illinois, Rhode Island, Ohio, New Mexico and California were all states that saw their budgets decimated by expanding Medicaid.

“And the list keeps growing. Obamacare is crumbling because there is no such thing as free money,” Bennett wrote. “We rejected Medicaid expansion five times, and we will reject again, no matter how many times liberal politicians push for it. Unfortunately, there are some politicians using a real addiction pandemic to push welfare expansion to score political points in an upcoming election year. The governor doesn’t play that game.”

But Saviello said given Maine’s ongoing addiction crisis, it’s time the state takes advantage of the federal funds meant to provide health insurance to individuals who earn less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $16,105 a year for a single person.

Saviello said in Franklin County, drug addicts that end up in jail for committing crimes to support their habits are often too poor to afford health insurance, and when they are released from jail return to a cycle of crime and substance abuse without treatment and counseling available.

“In the jail, they have no choice, they dry out,” Saviello said. “But then what happens? They’ve done their time, we release them, we have no money for counseling, we have no place to send them. Guess what? They come back again, so they create crime to get the money, to get their heroin and they’re back in jail.”

In his view, Saviello said it makes more sense to get people health care coverage via Medicaid, where the federal government covers most of the costs of substance abuse treatment and counseling.

“This is about drug treatment and we are sitting on megabucks on the border of the state of Maine, to come in here and help low-income individuals with counseling and treatment,” Saviello said. 

But other Republicans who have opposed expanding Medicaid, including Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, said Saviello and Katz are unlikely to get the support they need to move the legislation to law.

Brakey, the Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said the Legislature has four times been unable to pass a Medicaid expansion and that 2016 doesn’t look much different politically than 2015.

“It’s going to be just as dead on arrival this year as it was last year,” Brakey said. Brakey said the makeup of the Legislature hasn’t changed enough for the bill to gain traction, and it may be an even less welcoming environment as Republicans picked up two House seats in special elections over the fall.

Brakey said he and others don’t believe Maine would be able to ultimately afford a Medicaid expansion and that the federal government’s debt load is such already that he doesn’t believe its 90 percent reimbursement rate for states’ Medicaid costs is sustainable.

He said other states that have expanded their Medicaid programs have witnessed enormous cost overruns that far exceed original projections. 

“You can look at so many states between here and California, that we consistently see this pattern over and over again – the fiscal projections on what it is going to cost are oftentimes very optimistic and it ends up costing the taxpayers of the state way more than that,” Brakey said. “And this doesn’t take into account the simple fact that the federal government is broke.”

Brakey said his committee also has at least one bill coming before it that seeks to increase the amount the state spends on addiction treatment that is paired with a bill that funds additional law enforcement officers for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. But Brakey also said it remains unclear to him where the funding for either of the new expenses is going to come from.

But Saviello countered Brakey and said Mainers who pay federal taxes or who are paying higher insurance premiums to cover the costs of uninsured individuals or to make up for reduced federal payments to health care providers — money that’s instead being used to provide health insurance coverage to low-income people in other states — are already paying more.

He said arguments that Medicaid expansion in other states, including New Hampshire, haven’t worked out or have cost more are not always fully supported with facts. Saviello notes that New Hampshire hospitals are now seeing a reduction in the amount of charity care they cover, known as “uncompensated care.”

“They’ve seen a 17 percent reduction in the amount of unpaid claims to their hospitals,” Saviello said.

And while Saviello knows LePage is highly unlikely to support Medicaid expansion in Maine, he points out that LePage has endorsed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as a Republican candidate for president. Christie agreed to expand Medicaid in New Jersey under the ACA, Saviello said.

Saviello said he believes LePage has opposed the expansion because he’s opposed to President Obama and one of Obama’s signature programs that has been largely panned by conservatives.

“We have a great opportunity here and we keep blocking it because of ideological differences, that’s what this is all about, it’s ideological differences,” Saviello said.

Saviello said he believes he can get the bill passed in the House and the Senate but is uncertain he will have the votes to overturn a veto from LePage.

“The odds are against me, but I’m not going to give up, I’m going to try,” Saviello said.

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“As Yogi Berra said, ‘It’s déjà vu all over again.’ The results were disastrous for Maine when it expanded this kind of welfare in 2002, and now it’s blowing holes in state budgets around the country.”  – Adrienne Bennett, LePage spokeswoman

“We have a great opportunity here and we keep blocking it because of ideological differences, that’s what this is all about, it’s ideological differences . . . The odds are against me, but I’m not going to give up, I’m going to try.”  –

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“It’s going to be just as dead on arrival this year as it was last year.” –

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