AUGUSTA — U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said Tuesday that it would be “illegal” for Gov. Paul LePage to cut certain groups from the state’s Medicaid program to balance the budget.

After meeting with LePage in the Cabinet Room, Pingree, a Democrat, said based on her extensive talks with federal officials, the waivers that LePage is seeking from federal Medicaid requirements won’t be granted.

“The routes he’s taking are illegal and ineligible under the law,” she said. “We don’t see a route that he’s planning that will actually work to solve this problem. We did offer to help the governor in other ways, any way we can possibly help to bring more federal dollars into the state.”

LePage, a Republican, has proposed seeking three waivers from federal requirements as part of his plan to close a $221 million budget shortfall in the state Department of Health and Human Services over the next 17 months. The waivers would allow cuts accounting for about $37 million of that total.

LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, disagreed with Pingree’s assertion that the request is illegal.

“There is nothing illegal about seeking a waiver, nor is the governor’s proposal illegal,” Bennett said. “Until the governor submits a formal request to (Health and Human Services) Secretary (Kathleen) Sebelius, the assumption that she will or will not grant Maine a waiver is, at best, speculative.”

The federal Affordable Care Act requires states to get waivers if they want to reduce the level of coverage they provide. LePage has said that Maine is more generous than other states with its Medicaid programs, and that he believes Maine should be allowed to cut back to the average of what’s provided in other states.

However, the federal health insurance law requires “maintenance of effort,” which means states must maintain their current levels of coverage until the federal law takes effect in 2014. If Maine tried to cut a program without federal approval, it would jeopardize all federal funding for that program.

Pingree said she told the governor Tuesday that he might consider alternatives, such as talking to large employers about providing affordable health insurance for their workers.

“I said one thing the governor can do is to go back to companies, like Wal-Mart, that actually educate their workers to qualify for Medicaid as opposed to giving better coverage to their own workers,” she said. “Many of the big chains can do more of their share and pay people a better rate to qualify for health care coverage at their own companies.”

Pingree, a former Maine legislator, said she understands that the state has a fiscal crisis. But she disagreed with LePage’s continued characterization of MaineCare — Maine’s Medicaid program — as a welfare program.

“Frankly, it’s a basic safety net for people,” she said. “It’s how doctors, nurses and hospitals get paid.”

Bennett said the administration hoped to begin preliminary discussions about the waivers with the federal government on Tuesday.

“There are some philosophical differences between how we need to get to where we need to be,” she said. “We have an aging population that makes this financial crisis that much more difficult to deal with.”

Susan Cover — 620-7015

[email protected]

 


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