AUGUSTA — A representative of Maine’s hospitals said Monday he is surprised and disappointed that Democratic lawmakers want to combine a decision on Medicaid expansion with a proposal to pay a $186 million debt to hospitals.

While hospitals support both the debt payment and expanding Medicaid coverage to 55,000 additional Mainers, differing time frames for legislative action means that linking the two issues could slow the payment of $484 million in state and federal money owed to hospitals, said Jeffrey Austin, lobbyist for the Maine Hospital Association. If Maine pays the hospitals money owed for past care provided to Mediaid patients before October, the state will save $5 million, he said.

“We feel we’ve met all of our obligations to be paid,” Austin said. “Linking the two is unacceptable.”

Gov. Paul LePage blasted Democratic leaders in a statement on Friday after they told him of the plan in a Thursday meeting, saying they had reneged on their commitment to pay back hospitals.

However, Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Democrats have been clear about wanting to work to lower the cost of health care and paying hospitals during the session.

“As we make this final payment, we should be linking in driving down the cost of health care,” he said. “We believe one package is the best approach.”

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said in a statement Monday that the Legislature will send the governor a bill that combines the issues.

“It’s important to approach health care in a comprehensive way,” Eves said. “To do one without the other would leave our work only half done.”

Adrienne Bennett, a LePage spokeswoman, said resolving the Medicaid issue will take longer than repaying the hospitals because the administration is looking for the best possible Medicaid-expansion deal from the federal government.

The federal government would pay 100 percent of the state’s costs for the expansion from 2014 to 2016, then gradually reduce reimbursements to 90 percent of the cost. The LePage administration, meanwhile, told the Obama administration that Maine will consider participating in the expansion if the federal government pays for affected recipients for 10 years. Bennett said the administration hasn’t gotten an answer on that proposal.

LePage issued a statement Monday calling upon legislators to give his original hospital payment proposal an up-or-down vote. The $186 million payment by the state would trigger about $298 million matching federal payments, bringing the total payment to hospitals to $484 million.

“Republicans and many good Democrats have been ready for months to pay the hospitals, and the Maine people know it is the right thing to do,” LePage said. “I’m calling on Democratic leadership to let legislators take a simple up-or-down vote on my plan.”

Alfond said that’s not the plan.

Alfond said he also supports getting the best deal for the state with regard to Medicaid expansion, but the Legislature probably will have the information it needs on expansion in time to move forward on both issues.

The Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee has said it plans to draft a bill to pay the hospital debt, effectively paying for it with liquor contract revenue.

Meanwhile, the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee is mulling a proposal from Rep. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham, to expand access to Medicaid, the federal health care program for the poor.

Several advocacy groups, including AARP Maine, plan to launch statewide radio and newspaper ads Wednesday to support that proposal.

Alfond said Democratic leaders will move forward to combine the two bills into one proposal.

The Democrats’ effort to use the hospital payment as leverage to win Medicaid expansion, follows efforts by LePage to link issues together as leverage.

Democrats at first opposed the governor’s effort to link liquor revenue with the hospital payment. LePage also has linked the hospital payment to the release more than $100 million in voter-approved bonds.

“Every day, the governor comes out with, from my perspective, very, very controversial ideas; and some of them are linked to other things. Some of them are separate items,” Alfond said. “We have deal with each one of them, roll up our sleeves and get the work done for the state of Maine.”

LePage has said he is ideologically opposed to expanding Medicaid, but he engaged the federal government in talks on the issue after a number of Republican governors in other states said they were open to it.

An analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation has projected that Maine will save $690 million in the next 10 years if it accepts federal dollars under the Affordable Care Act to provide care to abouty 55,000 Mainers.

Republican legislators have been wary of expansion, however. House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, said the timing of Democrats’ proposal is troubling.

“Any attempt to couple Medicaid expansion with repayment of the hospitals simply will not happen in the next eight weeks,” he said, referring to the end of the legislative session in June. “We’re putting the repayment of the hospitals at risk.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652
[email protected]
Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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