Rally urges state to accept federal money to expand MaineCare

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine – Thomas Ptacek never expected to rely on MaineCare or the veterans health services he was entitled to after serving as a psychiatric technician with the Navy during the first Gulf War.

But after he became homeless four years ago at the age of 40, Ptacek found himself needing government assistance for the first time in his life. He lined up housing in Portland with the help of a veterans rental assistance program and signed up for food stamps.

He also qualified for MaineCare, the state’s version of the federal Medicaid health insurance program for the poor. Gov. Paul LePage is now weighing whether to accept federal dollars to expand the program under the Affordable Care Act, softening his stance after first staunchly opposing the expansion.

Ptacek tries not to use his MaineCare benefits, he said, because he has already received so much government help.

"I don’t want to ask for more," he said. "There very well could be someone who needs it more than me."

Ptacek attended a rally Thursday in South Portland urging support for the Medicaid expansion. He has experienced balance problems lately, he said, and his family history of multiple sclerosis is weighing on his mind. If he were to trip and fall, he’d need his MaineCare to cover the hospital bill, he said.

Many people also rely on MaineCare for mental health services that are critical to lifting them out of homelessness, said Ptacek, who represented the advocacy group Homeless Voices for Justice at the rally.

Organized by Cover Maine Now, a coalition of 78 groups including business, nonprofits, faith-based groups and civic organizations, the rally at The Opportunity Alliance drew about 50 people who urged lawmakers to accept federal money to expand the MaineCare program. The move would make health coverage available to an additional 69,500 people, including 24,500 parents and childless adults due to lose coverage in 2014, according to a recent report by the advocacy group Maine Equal Justice Partners and the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

Both organizations are members of the Cover Maine Now coalition.

State Rep. Linda Sanborn, a Gorham Democrat, has sponsored a bill to expand the MaineCare program.

Under the health care law, the federal government promises to pay 100 percent of Medicaid expansion costs for newly eligible residents for three years. After that, the federal contribution gradually drops to 90 percent in 2020 and the states pick up the remaining tab.

LePage has asked the federal government to cover 100 percent of costs for a longer period of 10 years.

Maine is one of a handful of states that already cover a significant portion of residents who would be newly eligible for Medicaid coverage under the federal health reform law. Although fewer Maine residents would qualify for 100 percent federal Medicaid funding as a result, the federal government is promising to increase its share of costs for states like Maine that have already expanded Medicaid.

Under that arrangement, Maine would receive more federal money to provide Medicaid benefits to some people it’s already covering. A recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation projected that Maine’s share of Medicaid expenses would drop over the next decade by $570 million, while the federal share of Maine’s expenses would rise by $3.1 billion.

LePage has questioned whether the federal government will keep its promise to kick in a higher share of Medicaid funds.

Expanding health coverage would help thousands of hardworking Mainers who are "just one illness or accident away from bankruptcy, or worse," Sara Gagne-Holmes, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, said at the rally.

Gagne-Holmes was followed by Heather Ciccarelli, a volunteer who helps patients at the Maine Medical Center Cancer Institute navigate the health care system. Expanding MaineCare would give thousands of Mainers access to preventive screenings that could spare them from delayed cancer diagnoses, she said.

"I work with patients every day who are fighting for their lives," Ciccarelli said. "Instead of being able to focus on fighting cancer, they are worried about how they are going to pay their medical bills."