September 19, 2013

Maine Medicaid debate rolls on in battle of oversized checks

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

LEWISTON – Gov. Paul LePage came to Central Maine Medical Center on Wednesday to present a $43 million check to the hospital from the state of Maine. 

click image to enlarge

Gov. Paul LePage is interrupted by protester Paul Nickerson, dressed as Uncle Sam, during a news conference as LePage presents Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston with a check for $38 million Wednesday.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

“Uncle Sam” showed up to present a $1.05 billion check to LePage. 

“Uncle Sam,” liberal activist Paul Nickerson of Lewiston, wore a costume as part of a stunt that threw a temporary wrench into the governor’s publicity campaign: the presentation of oversized checks – “Publisher's-Clearinghouse”-style LePage told the Sun Journal in Lewiston – to Maine’s hospitals.

LePage has repeatedly said that a policy and political priority is repaying the state’s $183 million share of a $490 million Medicaid debt to Maine’s 39 hospitals. On Wednesday, the governor went about the business of making good on his word.

However, the governor’s victory tour was disrupted by a political and policy priority of Democrats: the expansion of Medicaid, the public health insurance program for the poor, through the federal Affordable Care Act. 

As LePage presented the oversized check to officials at Central Maine Medical Center, Nickerson, an activist from the Maine People’s Alliance, brought the check to LePage. The fake check was from the federal government – a reference to the “federal dollars” that Democratic lawmakers and activists say LePage is forgoing through his resistance to expanding Medicaid to more than 60,000 Mainers.

As the hospital event began, Nickerson entered the lobby wearing his costume. He didn’t speak, but struck a wide stance off to LePage's right. He stood silently, holding the check and pointing to the crowd – the iconic gesture made by Uncle Sam. LePage laughed initially, as did the crowd of doctors and nurses who lined the hospital entrance on an exposed balcony. 

The governor continued with his prepared remarks, saying repaying the hospital debt was one of his proudest accomplishments. 

Nickerson, however, was the focus of the crowd. Eventually, Peter Steele, the governor’s spokesman, gestured to a member of LePage’s security detail. Nickerson was escorted out of the hospital without incident. As he left, a man in the crowd muttered to him, “Why don’t you get a job?”

The fight over Medicaid dominated the last legislative session. It promises to continue through 2014, a gubernatorial and legislative election year. LePage launched the first salvo this week, selecting findings in a University of Michigan study to argue that Medicaid expansion would benefit younger men, smokers and those who are likely to consume alcohol.

Although the study was supportive of expansion, the governor’s message was clear: The able-bodied, smokers and drinkers will receive taxpayer-funded health care. 

The next day Democratic legislative leaders announced that they would introduce Medicaid expansion legislation in January. It will be their third attempt after failing to convince enough Republicans to support a bill that combined the governor’s hospital payback plan with expansion, and another amended version co-authored by Senate minority leader Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta. 

“We will never stop fighting for health care for thousands of Maine people,” Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves said during a news conference Tuesday. 

Assistant Senate majority leader Anne Haskell, D-Portland, added, “Gov. LePage should join all the other Republican governors who have put aside partisanship and political games to expand health care for the people in their state. Instead, our governor has doubled down his ‘deny and delay’ of expanding health care and he is spreading misinformation and fear, pitting Mainers against each other.”

Wednesday’s stunt by the Maine People’s Alliance was a continuation of the political battle. The nonprofit group supports state Democratic candidates and causes, through voter-registration and get-out-the-vote efforts.

LePage on Wednesday took a few questions from reporters. He initially declined to talk about Medicaid but relented after being pressed on the issue. He said Democrats hadn’t come forward with any meaningful compromise plan and were using the issue for political gain. He said he wouldn’t expand Medicaid until the Legislature funded existed Medicaid services for several thousand disabled residents on a waiting list. 

(Continued on page 2)

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