AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) -- Lawmakers took a step Wednesday toward paying Maine's hospitals a $485 million debt for Medicaid services, but it wasn't one favored by Gov. Paul LePage.
The Health and Human Services Committee voted 10-4 to urge that repayment of the hospital debt be tied to acceptance of federal funding to expand Medicaid services. It says that by accepting federal funding to cover more Maine families, the state helps to reduce hospital charity care costs, which are passed on to all Maine people.
The committee will send a letter expressing its wishes to the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, which has been overseeing a plan to complete repayment through the refinancing of the state's liquor contract. The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee could take a final vote on the measure as early as Thursday.
Majority Democrats say the state could save nearly $700 million over the next decade by accepting federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. They say health coverage would be extended to about 70,000 more Mainers.
"It is morally and economically the right thing to do to address the costs of health care for our hospitals and our people," Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said in a statement. "People's lives are on the line. Now is the time to do this."
Hospitals would not only be paid their back debt, they would also receive an additional $163 million a year in federal dollars for treating newly insured Maine residents, said Alfond, who called it "a win-win for everyone."
LePage, who has pressed lawmakers for months to act quickly on his plan to repay the hospitals, said he was "astounded" by Wednesday's committee vote. He said Mainers do not support tying Medicaid expansion to the hospital debt.
"I am astounded by this last-minute political maneuvering to make an end run around the Maine people. So once again I am calling on Democratic leadership to let legislators take a simple up-or-down vote on my plan," the governor said.
LePage wants to use money from a renegotiation of Maine's liquor sales contract to pay the hospitals the state's share of the debt, $186 million. The remaining $298 million would be matched by federal money.
House GOP Leader Ken Fredette said the Health and Human Services Committee's vote to tie Medicaid expansion to the hospital issue "comes as a complete surprise to Republicans."
"However, we stand ready to work with Democrats to pay the Medicaid bills the state owes to Maine hospitals and further examine the Medicaid expansion issue, whenever they should decide to reach out to us," Fredette, of Newport, said in a statement.