Obama official urges Maine to expand Medicaid

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — President Barack Obama’s administration urged Maine officials to expand Medicaid coverage under the federal health overhaul Monday and expressed confidence that the number of residents enrolled in the new insurance marketplace will grow substantially over the next couple of months.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest touted the benefits of expanding Medicaid coverage to about 70,000 Mainers, a signature aspect of Obama’s health care law, and encouraged the state to put politics aside and pass such legislation, which lawmakers will consider again in January.

Opponents face a “central but consequential decision,” he said. “They can score short-term political points by blocking Medicaid or they can save taxpayers’ dollars and ensure that thousands of their citizens have access to quality affordable health care,” he said on a conference call with reporters.

Even if the newly reintroduced bill to expand Medicaid coverage passes the Democratic-controlled Legislature, it will almost certainly face a veto from Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who vetoed two versions of the bill last session. That means Democrats will have to get enough Republican lawmakers on board to override the veto, an effort that has previously failed.

GOP lawmakers worry about the long-term costs and point to the problems that have plagued the rollout of the health care law as further evidence for why the state shouldn’t accept federal dollars for an expansion.

“The president and Congress broke their promise to the American people about being able to keep their health insurance, and it makes me wonder, will they break their promise to state governments to pay for most of welfare expansion if we choose to participate?” House Republican Leader Ken Fredette Newport said recently in a statement.

Obama announced last week that he’ll give insurers and states the option to keep offering consumers plans that would otherwise be canceled for another year. But questions remain about what impact that will have on the roughly 8,500 Maine residents whose plans are being canceled and replaced with a different plan that complies with the requirements of the health care law.

Meanwhile, the top U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for New England official told lawmakers and industry experts Monday that while only 271 Maine residents picked plans on the marketplace in the first month of enrollment, the administration expects that many more will do so in coming months.

Christine Hager said the first month of enrollment on the marketplace, another key component of Obama’s health care law, is the time when people will view their options before finally deciding on a plan.

“This is largely a shopping period,” told the Health Exchange Advisory panel, a group overseeing the rollout of the health care law in Maine. “And the numbers that we’re seeing are … very encouraging.”

More than 3,500 Maine residents submitted applications on behalf of nearly 6,500 people, like themselves, their spouses and children. The state has estimated that as many as 250,000 residents, including about 130,000 uninsured, could use the marketplace.

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