AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers sparred Thursday over Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to close an estimated $220 million budget gap at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Some Republicans lamented what they called an unwillingness by Democrats to nail down savings, while Democrats bristled at the prospect of cutting services for the needy while tax cuts are on the table.

“We have to start looking for how we’re going to pay for this,” said Rep. Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport. “Quite frankly, I think it’s time you step up to the table to address that.”

Fredette, a member of the Appropriations Committee, directed his comments at Democrats on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, who opposed a vote earlier this week by their Republican counterparts supporting several of LePage’s proposed cuts. The two committees met Thursday to discuss the preliminary vote, which Appropriations will consider in its final deliberations on the DHHS budget.

Rep. Peter Stuckey, D-Portland, a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, questioned the wisdom of addressing DHHS’ financial problems outside the context of the overall state budget, which includes major tax cuts.

“To try to resolve them without looking at the entire state budget doesn’t work for me, I’m sorry,” he said.

LePage has proposed closing the DHHS shortfall by overhauling MaineCare, the state’s version of the federal Medicaid program, to bring it closer to national averages for public health benefits. His plan would drop 65,000 people from coverage, tighten eligibility requirements and cut services.

On Wednesday, the Health and Human Services Committee voted along party lines, with the Republican majority supporting LePage’s plan to slash $30 million from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which administers a variety of health initiatives including smoking cessation programs. Democrats on the panel said LePage’s MaineCare proposal was shortsighted, urging the budget committee to find savings through payment reforms and better management of recipients’ care.

The Appropriations Committee also touched on initiatives in the MaineCare proposal that violate a provision of the federal health reform law. LePage’s plans for tighter eligibility in a prescription drug program, stricter income limits for some parents and dropping 19- and 20-year-olds from the MaineCare rolls would require a waiver from the federal government.

The governor has proposed seeking greater authority to set the DHHS budget if the waiver is denied. That prospect made some Democrats uneasy about the loss of legislative authority.

Sen. Roger Katz, Augusta, said legislators must act on the MaineCare proposal soon, with the fiscal year ending on June 30.

“The Patriots were still losing football games when we started this discussion,” he said. “We’ve got to wrap this up.”

The Appropriations Committee plans to meet again 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...