AUGUSTA, Maine — Saying Maine should use available federal funds to help combat its opioid addiction crisis, Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, launched the latest push to expand the state’s Medicaid program, MaineCare.

The sixth effort to expand Medicaid eligibility since 2013 is backed by the state’s hospitals, as well as advocates for low-income Mainers and a portion of Maine’s law enforcement community.

“Increasing access to MaineCare coverage means increasing access to mental health counseling, drug addiction treatment and counseling and preventative health care, providing measurable cost savings and beneficial health outcomes across Maine,” Saviello said during a news conference Tuesday at the State House.

Saviello’s Senate district includes Farmington’s Franklin Memorial Hospital, which could stand to benefit financially from a Medicaid expansion.

Farmington police Chief Jack Peck joined Saviello on Tuesday in Augusta, along with Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols and Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry. Merry and Peck spoke in favor of Medicaid expansion and said the Maine Sheriffs Association and Maine Chiefs of Police Association support Saviello’s proposal.

“It’s no surprise to everyone here in this room this morning we are dealing with an increase in drug-related crime,” Peck said. “As our communities and state work to address this increase in crime, we are also regularly confronted with extremely heartbreaking experiences as a result of drug addiction.”

Peck, speaking on behalf of the police chiefs association, said he had witnessed drug overdoses in his community and believed many could have been prevented, had the victims had access to treatment and prevention programs.

Merry said county jails had turned into “nothing more than de facto triage treatment centers.” Merry said 60 percent in county jails were there for addiction-related crimes, while 40 percent in jails suffered from mental illnesses. He said many inmates suffered from addiction and mental health problems.

“It’s time to change the way we are doing things,” Merry said.

Noting lawmakers in January passed a broad, bipartisan measure aimed at reducing the state’s opioid addiction crisis, Merry said ensuring more people had access to health care was the next important move lawmakers could make.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is already on the attack against the bill, warning lawmakers about a massive expansion of “medical welfare.” LePage has successfully vetoed five different incarnations of Medicaid eligibility expansion.

Meanwhile, Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in a release criticizing the concept of expansion that despite the federal funding, making more Mainers eligible for Medicaid would cost taxpayers an additional $315 million over the next five years.

Proponents of Saviello’s proposal, which would open Medicaid eligibility Jan. 1, 2017, to individuals and families with incomes of 138 percent of the federal poverty limit, offer much different cost and enrollment projections.

They say the measure would expand coverage to 70,000 uninsured Mainers and only cost the state between $6 million and $7 million per year, or about a fifth of Mayhew’s estimated cost.

During a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Mayhew said her department expects about 100,000 Mainers would become eligible if Saviello’s plan passes.

She said that even though the economy is improving, if the state offered a new free health care program individuals would drop the health care coverage they are paying for now.

Mayhew also said many of the Mainers who would be eligible for MaineCare under Saviello’s measure already are eligible for subsidized health care coverage through the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

“It will be vetoed. It will absolutely be vetoed,” Mayhew said.

She went on to express frustration that renewing debate on a sixth MaineCare expansion proposal would distract lawmakers from other priorities and could add spending to a health and human services budget that has taken years to rein in.

“The state and the Legislature are able to evaluate other priorities, debates that would not happen if the Department of Health and Human Services had a massive financial shortfall,” she said.

Mayhew said without a budget shortfall in DHHS, as has been the case for years, policymakers have been able to focus on improving the state’s economy.

“We will not be able to do that if we add 100,000 people at a cost of over $300 million,” Mayhew said.

A study commissioned by the Maine Health Access Foundation showed Maine would save as much as $26.7 million per year by using federal funds to enhance and replace state funds already used to cover health care costs for low-income families. That study also suggests the federal funds would result in more health care jobs in Maine and a net increase to the state’s General Fund as a result of the income taxes those new workers would pay.

On Tuesday, Saviello said he remained undaunted by the political challenge of passing an expansion in a legislative election year. Saviello said he paid for a poll that suggests 58 percent of Mainers support expansion.

“I do the right thing,” Saviello said. “This is the right thing. I don’t care if it’s an election year or not an election year.”

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.