- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 25, 2014

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Maine lawmakers gave the first nod Tuesday to a bill that would cancel the state’s nearly $1 million contract with a consultant reviewing its Medicaid program.

The Democratic-led House voted 80-60 in favor of nixing the contract with the Alexander Group, which was hired by Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to study whether the state should expand Medicaid under the federal health care law and address other issues in the program. The bill still faces a second votes in the House and two votes in the state Senate before it would go to LePage.

Democrats have heavily criticized the Department of Health and Human Services‘ awarding of the no-bid contract to the group led by Gary Alexander, former welfare chief of Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, and have questioned the group’s analysis that Medicaid expansion would cost the state $800 million over the next decade. The group is scheduled to deliver further reports on other parts of Maine’s Medicaid program.

Alexander came under fire from Democrats and advocates from the poor while in Pennsylvania for his cost-cutting efforts in welfare and Maine lawmakers accused the administration of hiring the group because it knew it would conclude that Maine shouldn’t expand the program under the federal health care law.

“The department didn’t want a vendor that was independent, objective … it was willing to pay $1 million to the vendor and the only obvious criteria was that the vendor had to give the department exactly what it wanted,” said Democratic Rep. Drew Gattine of Westbrook.

The department has defended its hiring of the Alexander Group, which it says is uniquely qualified to review the Medicaid program. Republican lawmakers echoed that argument Tuesday, pointing to the consultant’s ability to help Rhode Island achieve a global wavier to provide it more flexibility in running its Medicaid program, which is something Maine also seeks.

Some Democrats expressed concern about the constitutionality of the bill and said that while they didn’t support the Alexander Group report, they didn’t think it was within the Legislature’s authority to reject a contract signed by the executive branch.