AUGUSTA — Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services committee sniped at one another Wednesday over a controversial $925,000 no-bid contract for an evaluation of public assistance programs, and then voted along party lines in favor of a bill that would cancel it.

Democrats prevailed as the committee voted 7-5 to cancel the contract with Rhode Island-based The Alexander Group, which was hired to evaluate the programs. The bill will now go to the full Legislature, but even if approved, it faces an almost-certain veto from Gov. Paul LePage, whose administration hired the consultant.

About 1/3 of the $925,000 has already been paid to the Alexander Group, which has completed one report that recommends against expanding Medicaid, called MaineCare in Maine.

Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, said that she hasn’t always agreed with consultants’ reports over the years, but it’s not the Legislature’s role to cancel contracts.

“This is inserting ourselves into the executive branch’s right to form a contract,” Sanderson said. “We are being very far-reaching and overstepping our bounds.”

But Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, said it’s the Legislature’s job to rein in irresponsible spending. He said he considers The Alexander Group’s report to be partisan and the LePage campaign should have paid for it. The governor is seeking re-election this year in a three-way race against Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent candidate Eliot Cutler.

“I don’t think taxpayers in the state of Maine should be paying for this report, and I don’t think they should have to pay another penny for it,” Gattine said.

Gattine said the report “propped up” the LePage administration’s preconceived opinion that MaineCare should not be expanded.

“The department found someone to give it the answer that it wanted,” Gattine said.

No one from The Alexander Group or the Department of Health and Human Services showed up to testify about the bill. Although the consultant has been paid more than $300,000, it has only delivered one of the five reports its contract calls for, and has missed deadlines, committee Democrats said.

The Legislature is currently considering a compromise MaineCare expansion proposal crafted by moderate Republicans, but LePage and Republican leaders remain opposed to giving 70,000 additional Mainers free MaineCare benefits.

Gary Alexander, founder of The Alexander Group, previously headed up Rhode Island’s and Pennsylvania’s health and human services departments. His tenure was controversial in Pennsylvania, but less so in Rhode Island, experts have said. In Pennsylvania, Alexander came under fire for proposals to trim state welfare programs and for charging the state for his commutes from Rhode Island to Pennsylvania. In Rhode Island, he was credited with helping the state obtain a “global waiver,” which gave the state more flexibility in operating its Medicaid program. The resulting reforms saved money in Rhode Island, according to an independent study.

But Alexander’s report for Maine came under heavy fire from critics who complained the group’s report exaggerated the costs of expanding MaineCare. The federal government has pledged to pay 100 percent of the cost of Medicaid expansion for three years, and 90 percent in subsequent years.

LePage and statehouse Republicans used The Alexander Report to bolster their arguments that MaineCare expansion will be much costlier than predicted.

A national health care analyst said the report contained a $575 million calculation error, omitted savings measures and overstated poverty projections that could balloon the costs of expansion.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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