WASHINGTONGov. Paul LePage blasted U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree today, accusing the Democrat of becoming “part of the jet-setting Washington culture that keeps people dependent on government handouts” and representing bureaucrats over Maine residents.

In an escalation of the political tensions over Medicaid in Maine, LePage said Pingree’s recent letter to President Obama’s health secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, was “careless in its facts” and failed to mention that proposed cuts to Medicaid were approved by the state Legislature.

“If you would like to attack me personally, fine, but it is irresponsible and a disservice to Maine people to try and hide the facts from a [Cabinet] secretary,” LePage wrote in a July 11 letter to Pingree, D-District 1.

Pingree responded Wednesday afternoon that she was representing the estimated 27,000 Mainers who stand to lose their health coverage through Medicaid if the cuts are enacted.

“I didn’t mean to be in a personal dispute with the governor but I’m not going to back down on my opinion on this,” Pingree said in an interview.

On Monday, Pingree wrote a letter to Sebelius, urging her and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to review Maine’s plans to remove more than 20,000 people from MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program. Pingree opposes those cuts.

The dispute lies in differing interpretations of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s landmark health care law that has become an intensely partisan issue in Congress and across the country.

The LePage administration claims – with the support of Maine Attorney General William Schneider – that the recent court ruling means that the state no longer needs to seek a special waiver from DHHS to make the Medicaid cuts. DHHS has never issued a so-called “maintenance of effort waiver” to states seeking to reduce their Medicaid offerings, and Maine’s application was widely viewed as a longshot.

On Tuesday, Sebelius sent a letter to all 50 governors that did not specifically mention the waiver issue. But Sebelius wrote that, apart from a clear ruling on states’ obligations to expand Medicaid, “the court’s decision did not affect other provisions of the law.”

A spokesman for DHHS declined to comment on or clarify the issue on Wednesday. But the non-specific phrase was enough for Pingree and other critics of the proposed Medicaid cuts to declare that Maine must still seek a waiver.

“We do think that her statement last night clarifies the issue,” Pingree said.

Pingree is married to financier S. Donald Sussman, a contributor to Democratic and charitable causes and the majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which owns the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and other media outlets in Maine.

The waiver has been an issue in Maine for months, since LePage and Republican lawmakers approved changes to the eligibility requirements for MaineCare as a way to balance the state budget.

Over the strong objections from Democratic lawmakers, Republicans voted to eliminate Medicaid coverage for senior citizens and people with disabilities in the Medicare Savings Program, 19- and 20-year-olds, and parents whose income is 100 percent to 133 percent of the federal poverty level.

LePage also sent a separate letter to Sebelius today in which he calls Pingree’s earlier letter an “opinion piece” and says he hopes DHHS will consider an upcoming Medicaid amendment request from Maine “free of political interference.”

In his letter to Pingree, LePage also said he found it “astounding that you would actively advocate for the federal government to overrule Maine decisions.”

“Your title says that you are a Representative from Maine, but apparently you prefer to represent the power of bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.,” LePage wrote.

In an interview in her House office, Pingree said she has had several conversations with the governor about the issue and that he was well aware of her position. But she defended her decision to ensure that DHHS reviews the proposed cuts through the waiver process.

“I don’t want to be in a personal fight with him,” Pingree said. “I am sympathetic to the [budget] challenges that he is facing, but I see it differently. And I disagree with him on our roles. I represent the entire 1st Congressional District of Maine and I feel my job is to make sure I speak up for the people who are going to lose their health care in a tough economic time.”

Pingree said that the bill was thoroughly debated as well as vetted by the Supreme Court, adding “now it is our job to move forward and implement it.”

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