AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage blasted the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday for delaying action on the state’s plan to eliminate health care for about 33,000 low-income Mainers.

The governor, in a press statement and video, claimed that the federal government was purposely stalling its ruling on the state’s application to amend its Medicaid coverage plan. The governor’s broadside against U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is the latest development in a months-long dispute over the Republican-led Legislature’s decision to cut Medicaid programs before receiving federal approval. 

The cuts would save the state about $20 million in Medicaid payments. The reductions, passed by Republicans over the objections of Democratic lawmakers, were also made to balance the state’s budget.  

The LePage administration applied for the changes Aug. 1 and requested an approval by Sept. 1. The U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which had 90 days to respond, informed the administration in September that it was still reviewing the state’s application. On Oct. 26, the federal government sent a letter to the administration requesting the state to clarify an inconsistency in its application and provide documentation that it had consulted with tribal leaders about the cuts.

LePage said the response effectively means that federal government has another 90 days to weigh the application. The governor said the federal government was playing politics by “resetting the clock.” 

“I don’t care if the federal government is trying to wait out an election,” LePage said during his video statement. “Maine needs and deserves answers now.”

LePage went on to say that the federal government’s “inflexibility was out of control.” He added that disabled Mainers were on a waiting list while “able-bodied” Mainers continued to receive Medicaid benefits. 

The state’s proposed Medicaid changes would end benefits for an estimated 24,000 parents, 6,848 19- and 20-year olds and 1,825 Medicare recipients who also receive limited benefits under Medicaid, which operates in Maine as MaineCare.

Although the cuts appear to require a waiver of Medicaid standards that the U.S. DHHS has never granted to any state, the LePage administration contends that such waivers are no longer necessary, because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June on the Affordable Care Act.

Others contest that interpretation of the court ruling and maintain that it doesn’t affect the type of waiver that would apply to Maine’s request.

LePage, in a written letter to Sebelius, said action was “necessary to allow Maine to re-balance our welfare programs ensuring we can pay the bills to help the truly impoverished get back on their feet, support our vulnerable children, and clear the waiting lists for those who have true need of services.”

State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, in a written statement, said it was “shameful” that LePage and his “Republican allies” have pit one “group of vulnerable people against another.”

“The governor has known since day one that these health care cuts were against federal law, yet he has pursued them anyway,” Rotundo said. “They should’ve never been included in the state budget in the first place.”