AUGUSTA, Maine — A mental health counselor hand-delivered to lawmakers on Wednesday a petition with the signatures of nearly 9,000 people who oppose Gov. Paul LePage’s planned MaineCare cuts.

Jennifer Lunden, executive director of the Center for Creative Healing in Portland, gave the 917-page document to Rep. Pat Flood, R-Winthrop, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, before the panel’s meeting on the MaineCare proposal. Lunden launched the petition online on Dec. 22 and watched it skyrocket to 8,732 signatures after sending it to her friends and email contacts.

“The voices in this petition are being listened to,” she said in an interview.

Lunden started the petition through, a petition service sponsored through the national liberal advocacy group

Half of Lunden’s patients are insured by MaineCare and she has seen firsthand how the coverage stabilizes their lives and helps them become productive citizens despite diagnoses including post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction, she said.

“Most legislators would not make these devastating cuts if they knew the stories of the people who are going to be affected by them,” Lunden said.

LePage’s proposal to overhaul MaineCare is designed to close an estimated $220 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services budget. He has called for tightening eligibility guidelines, eliminating services and repealing coverage for 65,000 recipients to bring MaineCare closer to national averages for public health benefits.

The Appropriations Committee didn’t discuss Lunden’s petition, but she said she was heartened by Flood’s evenhanded reception of the document and his attention to her plight.

“I have new faith in Maine state government,” she said.

Lawmakers spent most of the meeting walking through optional MaineCare services slated for cuts, including physical therapy, podiatry and treatment programs for sexually transmitted diseases.

But a statement on the cuts released by the governor Wednesday briefly waylaid the panel. The statement highlighted 80 percent enrollment growth in MaineCare over the last decade, saying the “welfare” program has grown fiscally unsustainable.

“Democrats can no longer ignore this fiscal mess that they have created through the years. Tax-payer funded, government-run healthcare is not universal nor is it free — it is paid for by hardworking taxpayers — and it must be saved for Maine’s most vulnerable … Republicans have been ready and willing to solve this and it’s time Democrats stop delaying this important issue,” the statement read.

LePage has said that MaineCare, the state’s version of the federal Medicaid program, will run out of money by April 1.

Democrats fired back, saying the shortfall is not because of growing enrollment but the administration’s miscalculations in building the DHHS budget, claims-processing problems and changes to payments for providers. They also objected to his labeling of MaineCare as a welfare program, saying it serves the elderly, disabled, mentally ill and the poor.

“I’d be more than happy to assist staff in the governor’s office to draft a press release that is accurate with the facts, and then we can move forward,” said Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake.

In response, Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Hancock, co-chairman of the panel, said the controversial cuts have generated a high volume of correspondence and press statements in recent days.

“It’s important for us to stay focused on our work, to keep our head down, to move ahead, to be productive and to resist any distractions that would pull us off that track,” he said.

The committee is scheduled to meet again on Thursday and Friday.

Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...