The Honorable Kathleen Sebelius

Health and Human Services

200 Independence Ave. S.W.

Washington, D.C. 20201

Dear Madame Secretary,

Consider this a pre-emptive apology.

Our Gov. Paul LePage — perhaps you’ve heard of him? — may soon be knocking on your door. And more than a few of us up here in Maine have a bad, bad feeling about what might happen once you let him in.

Gov. LePage said Friday he was going to give you a call, so forgive me if none of this is news to you. But just in case, I’ll take the liberty of explaining why he’s so upset — and how you might actually be in a position to help.

For months, the Maine Legislature’s Appropriations Committee has been hard at work trying to fill what the LePage administration says is a $221 million hole in our Medicaid (also known as Maine-Care) budget. And believe me, Madame Secretary, when I say these folks are working hard, I’m not kidding.

I’m talking Republicans and Democrats alike, poring over reams of spreadsheets and analyses as they first try to verify that Gov. LePage knows what he’s talking about and then come up with a rational plan for fixing the problem.

I’m talking hearings and work sessions that start early in the morning and continue well into the night.

I’m talking furrowed brows, caffeinated drinks and the occasional meltdown triggered by conservative “think tanks” that run on little more than pseudo-intellectual fumes.

All tough sledding, to be sure. But it’s been made infinitely tougher by our garrulous governor, who’s developed a strange habit of dropping in on those intrepid legislators and, as he did on Friday, staring at them with his hand raised until someone invites him to the microphone.

See, Madame Secretary, Gov. LePage thinks — despite considerable evidence to the contrary — that he can get you to waive federal requirements that currently stand in the way of $37 million of his proposed $221 million cuts to MaineCare.

Yes, I know that Cindy Mann, your director of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, informed our lawmakers just last week that the federal government does not grant waivers “solely for budgetary purposes.”

And believe me, Madame Secretary, most of us up here in Maine fully understand that the waiver being sought by Gov. LePage is an escape hatch that simply doesn’t exist.

But we’re also painfully aware that our governor sometimes has trouble getting his head around these things. And that brings me back to my reason for writing.

He said he’s coming down to see you.

Specifically, Gov. LePage told the bewildered budget committee that Maine will default and start closing schools on April 1 “if this (budget) is not approved by Feb. 1 and I don’t get on a plane on Feb. 2

and stay in Sebelius’ office” until you give him that waiver.

I know, that sounds a little creepy — especially since he didn’t specify how long he’ll stay in your office.

And since this is the same guy who once said he’d tell your boss, President Obama, to “go to hell,” we can only imagine what he might say to the keeper of the nation’s social safety net.

Now Madame Secretary, far be it from me to tell you how to handle this visit. As the former two-term governor of Kansas and currently the 13th most powerful woman in the world, according to Forbes magazine (you beat out Oprah!), I’m sure you’ve dealt with your share of angry, middle-aged male Republicans from time to time.

Meaning how long you actually let Gov. LePage “stay” in your office is entirely up to you — though I must warn you, leave him in there overnight and he may well have the entire federal welfare system dismantled by sunup.

But here’s where you can truly help, Madame Secretary. The longer you keep him down there in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol railing against you and everything you stand for, the more time our legislators in Augusta will have to tackle the budget shortfall without pulling the rug completely out from under Maine’s most vulnerable.

A few time-killing suggestions, if I might: Ask Gov. LePage about Maine’s black flies — he’ll tell you that hilarious (and entirely untrue) story about how the Maine Department of Environmental Protection once made him count them.

Ask him if he’s an art collector — trust me, he is.

Ask him about how things are going at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station — just be careful not to mention the name “Kestrel Aviation” or the state of Wisconsin.

The important thing is to keep him talking. And should the conversation wane, try letting him throw a few old Medicare rule books out your office window, just to let off steam — first person to hit the panhandler on the corner wins!

I know all of this falls way outside your normal job description, Madame Secretary. And I promise that the second the Legislature finds its way out of Maine’s morass — and they will — you’ll be the first to know.

Then you can simply hang up the phone, turn to Gov. LePage with a weary smile and say, “Problem solved, Governor!” And as he jubilantly disappears down that long corridor, just stand there in your doorway waving … and waving … and waving …

I can see his hastily prepared press release now: “Gov. LePage’s Trip Ends with Waver!”

Did I mention he doesn’t use spellcheck?

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at [email protected]


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