AUGUSTA — An advocacy group for the poor said Monday that it’s “irresponsible and dangerous” for Gov. Paul LePage to propose eliminating health insurance for 18,600 adults who don’t have children.

Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit legal aid organization, came to the State House to release a report that shows 47 percent of the people in that Medicaid program have been diagnosed with a major disease and 24 percent are being treated for mental illness.

Without health insurance, people would not be able to afford their prescriptions and probably would wait longer to seek help when they get sick, said Sara Gagne-Holmes, the group’s executive director.

“The proposal to eliminate coverage for childless adults is irresponsible and dangerous,” she said. “It unnecessarily puts thousands of people at risk.”

LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said the reason for the proposed elimination is simple: The state can no longer afford the $22 million it spends on the program annually. Since 2003, the state has used federal stimulus money to keep the program afloat, but that money is gone, she said.

“Democrats, for the better part of a couple of decades, have used this to provide affordable insurance to everybody,” Bennett said. “We simply can’t afford it anymore. It’s not a matter of what we want to cut; we’re overspending.”

“For the most part, these people are not elderly. They are not children,” she said, noting that the average age of people in the program is 40.

Bennett said the administration does not have a “clear answer” for what would happen to the 18,600 people who would lose their health insurance. That’s why the governor last year supported reforms that are designed to drive down the cost of insurance in Maine eventually, she said.

Officials have said the Department of Health and Human Services will not have enough money to keep MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, running as of April 1.

That’s why LePage had proposed a budget to close an estimated $221 million shortfall over the next 18 months. In total, his plan would eliminate MaineCare benefits for 65,000 people.

Lawmakers will meet today to continue discussing the plan.

Last week, Republicans rejected a part of the proposal that would have eliminated state funding for residential care for the elderly, the mentally ill and people with substance abuse problems. Cuts to the program for childless adults have a much better chance of ending up in the final budget.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said MaineCare has grown from 200,000 to 365,000 people in less than a decade and the state can’t afford it anymore. Katz serves on the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

“For me, a basic principle is we need to protect the most vulnerable, and this (group) may not be one of them,” he said. “These are otherwise able-bodied adults.”

If Maine continues the same level of coverage, it will take money from education, higher education, and cities and towns, he said.

Democrats say the state will be better off if it continues the program.

“If we throw these individuals off of health care, they will be forced to seek more expensive emergency room care, and private insurance payers will be left with the bill,” said Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, a member of the Health and Human Services Committee.

Maine is one of 20 states that offer such coverage, along with Connecticut, Vermont and Massachusetts. New Hampshire does not.

Maine offers the program to residents with incomes at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level, meaning $10,890 a year or less for an individual.

Stacey Jacobsohn, 50, of Augusta has been on MaineCare for seven years, and the coverage has paid for check-ups and prescriptions. After 20 years of house painting, physical problems limit her to working only about 15 hours a week. She’s taking classes now in hopes of finding work that will come with health insurance.

Until then, MaineCare provides her with coverage.

“Without MaineCare coverage, I will have to go without health care,” she said during a news conference held to release the results of the report by Maine Equal Justice Partners.

 

Susan Cover 620-7015

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