- Associated Press - Friday, April 18, 2014

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - As the legislative session wound down on Thursday, Maine’s Democratic-controlled Legislature approved a final attempt to expand health care coverage to about 70,000 low-income residents under the Affordable Care Act.

But like past efforts to include more residents in the Medicaid program under the federal health care law, the measure faces continued opposition from Republican lawmakers, making it unlikely that it will survive a near-certain veto from GOP Gov. Paul LePage.

The latest Medicaid expansion proposal came as lawmakers hurried to finish their work for the session, sending a flurry of proposals to LePage’s desk, including $50 million in bonds for small businesses and water infrastructure projects.

Under the plan introduced by House Speaker Mark Eves, Maine would expand Medicaid to the eligible population for one year while seeking permission from the federal government to use the federal funds to help residents buy private health insurance, instead.

If successful in getting a waiver, Maine would use the funds to cover roughly 55,000 people in plans on the federal exchange, or marketplace. Another 15,000 would remain in the Medicaid program.

If the federal government denies a waiver, Medicaid coverage for all 70,000 would end next year, Eves said.

Eves, a Democrat from North Berwick, said that the proposal is “dramatically different” from past Medicaid expansion measures and urged lawmakers to give it a chance.

“I cannot leave this building without knowing that we did everything that we could to insure 70,000 Mainers with life-saving health care,” he said in an interview.

The House backed the bill in a final 94-51 vote; the Senate followed by a 19-14 vote. But the totals fell short of the two-thirds majority Democrats will need to overturn a LePage veto.

Democrats have failed three other times to muster enough support from Republican lawmakers to allow the bill to pass into law despite objections from LePage, who contends that the expansion will be too costly for the state.

On Thursday, LePage called the latest proposal a political ploy and accused Democrats of waiting until the last minute to bring the measure forward to “try to pull the wool over everybody’s eyes.”

“It’s disturbing that liberal leadership refuses to listen to the people of Maine when they say they want real welfare reform,” he said in a statement. “Instead, liberals push policies that will cost Maine taxpayers millions of dollars and put the state deeper into debt.”

Republican lawmakers echoed LePage’s concerns, saying the issue was too significant to consider on the final night of the session without giving the public or the Department of Health and Human Services a chance to weigh in on the proposal.

The bill is among dozens lawmakers considered Thursday as they neared adjournment.

Lawmakers gave final approval to several bills that have been in legislative limbo as they awaited the decision on whether they could be funded.

Among those measures waiting for LePage’s signature is a bill that would allow the state’s forest rangers to carry firearms. Another measure would create a squad within the attorney general’s office dedicated to investigating unsolved homicides.

The Legislature also approved roughly $50 million in bond proposals, including $12 million to support financing programs that provide capital for small businesses and $10 million toward water projects, such as wetland restoration and upgrades to drinking water systems and wastewater treatment facilities.

Lawmakers plan to return in early May to vote on any outstanding vetoes from LePage.


Follow Alanna Durkin on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/aedurkin

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