The head of the federal department that oversees Medicaid said she offered to send experts to Maine to help Gov. Paul LePage cut state spending within federal limits, but LePage has not responded to the offer.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said Wednesday during a Senate Finance Committee hearing that she talked to LePage within the last two weeks about Maine’s effort to grapple with Medicaid costs. In Maine, Medicaid is called MaineCare.

Her comments came in response to a question from Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a committee member, who asked Sebelius what states like Maine could do to cut Medicaid costs while continuing to serve those who are eligible. Federal health care law requires that state maintain current benefits in many cases.

Sebelius said she told LePage what type of changes the state is allowed to make immediately, including tighter eligibility for parents enrolled in the health insurance program. That change was included in the budget cuts approved Thursday by the Legislature. Sebelius also said she offered to send a team of HHS officials to look at Maine’s other choices, an offer she has also made to other states.

LePage has proposed about $37 million in reduced MaineCare coverage starting in July that would require special permission from Sebelius. Federal law limits such waivers to states that are experimenting with alternative coverage options, however.

Sebelius said that her department “did not have a lot of paper from the governor about what exactly” the proposal was, but committed to doing whatever it could to look at immediate changes in areas where it had administrative flexibility and “look at ways that hopefully we could help reduce the costs in categories where we don’t have a lot of flexibility.”

“We’re waiting to get some responsiveness,” from LePage’s office, she said.

LePage was not available to comment on Sebelius’ offer Thursday. Adrienne Bennett, his spokeswoman, said that LePage called Sebelius to ask for greater flexibility with the budget. She did not say why LePage has not yet accepted Sebelius’ offer to send a team to Maine.

“Gov. LePage appreciates the secretary’s willingness to work with him and his administration in an effort to make Maine’s welfare programs affordable and sustainable,” Bennett said. “The governor will receive direction from the Legislature once the (2013) budget is passed and at that time the governor will be ready and willing to go to Washington.”

Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, and a member of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said the governor should welcome the help.

“I think it would be poor judgment not to accept the offer. I imagine they would have great suggestions about cost containment and restructuring,” Hill said. “It seems to me that would have been a win-win.”

John Richardson — 620-7016

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