WASHINGTON — Maine’s governor, Republican Paul LePage, has dialed back his staunch opposition to Medicaid expansion and entered discussions with the Obama administration over the possibility of accepting billions in federal funding to provide health insurance for more of the state’s low-income residents.
The apparent shift comes just weeks after eight other Republican governors, once vocal critics of Obama’s national health care overhaul law, surprised conservatives by announcing their intent to expand Medicaid to those with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line.
The Supreme Court has ruled that the Medicaid expansion in the law is optional for individual states, leading several GOP governors to initially say they would opt out. But one by one, some of them, including New Jersey’s Chris Christie, decided to embrace the expansion because it would serve their states’ uninsured populations and, at least initially, save state taxpayers’ money.
How far LePage is willing to follow those governors remains to be seen. His spokeswoman said he was unavailable for an interview on Tuesday.
“We are in preliminary talks” with the US Department of Health and Human Services, acknowledged Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman. “It’s premature for us to talk about anything.”
Medicaid is a federal-state program that provides health care coverage for low-income residents. Over the years, many states, including Maine, have expanded their coverage beyond the core federal rules for eligibility. A Globe report last month highlighted how
LePage, the sole governor in New England refusing to expand Medicaid under the new national health care law, was going a step further and ending some previously expanded benefits, beginning in March.
Bennett said the March 1 cuts impacting 20,000 low-income parents, seniors, and the disabled would remain in effect even if LePage were to expand Medicaid in other directions. But the expansion would benefit the roughly 24,000 adults under 138 percent of the federal poverty line whose coverage is scheduled to end.
Bennett would not say when LePage is expected to decide.
The expansion issue resurfaced on Monday after Democrats in the Maine Legislature tied their plan to pay $484 million that the state owes to hospitals to expanding Medicaid. The Bangor Daily News and the Portland Press Herald first reported on LePage's willingness to reconsider. LePage said in a statement he is focused on paying the hospitals.
“The Medicaid expansion is a totally separate issue,” LePage said. “How can we talk about expansion when we haven’t paid our bills yet? That’s how we racked up these unpaid Medicaid bills to hospitals in the first place.”
Maine is one of the few states to cover childless adults with incomes below the poverty line, but it can no longer afford to do so, said Mary Mayhew, state commissioner for health and human services.
LePage, elected in 2010 as a Tea Party-backed candidate, has criticized able-bodied adults who receive taxpayer-funded health care. Critics have accused LePage, the oldest son of 18 children who ran away from home at age 11 and lived on the streets, of callousness.
Advocates of Medicaid expansion pointed out that if Le-Page rejects expansion, he would be leaving more than $3 billion in federal funding on the table over a decade.
“We’re pleased to hear that the governor is considering exploring the opportunity to accept federal funds,’’ said Sara Gagné-Holmes, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit group that provides legal aid and advocacy for the poor.
Samarali Daniels, a 23-year-old mother of two in Augusta, said she and her husband, Ramon Badillo Perez, signed a petition recently for LePage to expand Medicaid. If he chooses not to, the couple’s coverage would end in January.
“I don’t want to get my hopes up too much because he’s one of the most extremist Tea Party Republicans,” Daniels said. “I’m hoping I’m wrong, but realistically I don’t really see it happening.”