Maine Medicaid Hopefuls Suffer While Paul LePage Ignores Voters’ Will (Updated)

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Maine Medicaid Hopefuls Suffer While Paul LePage Ignores Voters’ Will (Updated)

Auditi Guha

Maine residents are delaying critical health-care services because Gov. Paul LePage (R) has blocked the expansion of Medicaid after voters voted overwhelmingly for expansion in 2017.

UPDATE, April 4, 9:19 a.m.: Maine this week received federal approval for Medicaid expansion, 17 months after Maine voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to expand the program.

Naomi Loss is a nurse in Maine who looks after a daughter, Bethany, who has epilepsy and cognitive disabilities. Bethany was covered by her mom’s health insurance until April, when she turned 26. Today she is uninsured, works low-wage jobs, and her seizure medication costs more than $2,000 a month.

Even with a pharmacy discount, Loss spends more than $1,200 per month out of pocket.

Her daughter is among the 70,000 Mainers waiting to receive health coverage under the Medicaid expansion passed by voters last November—expansion that Republican Gov. Paul LePage has refused to implement

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“My concern is that I’m not going to be around forever and trying to help her be more independent is important,” Loss told Rewire.News. “It’s been a huge worry for a very long time.”

Maine Equal Justice Partners (MEJP), a group that campaigned for the ballot referendum, has sued the LePage administration for not implementing the popular law and has helped Bethany with the MaineCare expansion application and appeal so that her health costs can be covered. If the expansion is approved by the governor, it would cover her doctor visits, lab work, medications, and give her access to services like rehab and transportation that could allow her to live independently with the help of a caseworker, Loss said.

“The people of the state spoke in terms of the vote and passed the expansion. The governor refusing to release the funds to allow that to happen is really going against what the people of the state said they wanted and is really not fair,” she said. “We elect our officials to do what’s in the best interest and to follow the wishes of the people who vote them in, and when there are specific referendums like this, then it needs to happen. It takes a toll on people who need these services.”

Going without needed health care has a significant effect on peoples’ lives, said Robyn Merrill, executive director of MEJP. “It’s unacceptable and unnecessary that people who became eligible for health coverage under the law last July are still waiting for care. There is a human cost to this delay,” she said.

Almost 60 percent of voters approved the ballot initiative last November so it is the law, Merrill said. About 3,500 people have applied for coverage this year. LePage is term limited and chances are high that a new governor will implement the law once LePage’s time in office ends. Despite one of the candidates flip-flopping on the issue, all Democrats and Republicans vying for the governorship seem to be in favor of following the edict of the 2017 ballot measure, reports the Washington Post.

The LePage administration last month submitted the court-ordered documents needed to expand Medicaid but also sent a letter urging the federal government to reject it.

Meanwhile, Mary Mayhew, LePage’s former health commissioner and recent gubernatorial candidate who lost in the June primary, has been chosen to lead Medicaid nationwide after she opposed the expansion in Maine. Mayhew is known for decimating public assistance in economic austerity programs, including food stamps, and leaves behind a legacy of cuts to social service programs that will affect Maine for years, according to one former state legislator.

MEJP and the the LePage administration lawyers gave testimony at a Superior Court hearing in Portland in late September. A decision is expected by the end of the month and chances are the losing side will appeal and the matter will be referred to a higher court for a final decision, advocates said.

While the legal battle and politics play out, residents like Eric Spahn, 62, of Brunswick, are still waiting, delaying treatment for kidney disease, cataracts, diabetes, and hepatitis C.

He used to be covered until about 36,000 adults with low incomes like him were kicked off Medicaid when the LePage administration tightened eligibility requirements in 2013.

“I’m hoping I will get accepted to the program. I know it’s not going to be easy getting a kidney out of them but maybe I can get my cataracts fixed and go back to driving,” Spahn told Rewire.News. “It’s kind of controversial, but I do believe health care to be a human right.”