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Mills moves ahead with Medicaid expansion on first day

January 3, 2019
Gov. Janet Mills acknowledges applause after taking the oath of office, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019, at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta, Maine. Mills, a Democrat, is the state's first female governor. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Gov. Janet Mills’ first executive order Thursday took steps toward expanding Medicaid, something she had promised to do her first day in office to fulfill Maine voters’ demands.

The Democrat’s order urges her administration to swiftly roll out Medicaid expansion to at least 70,000 low-income Mainers, a measure her Republican predecessor had long blocked.

Mills ordered Maine’s health agency to adopt regulations to allow Mainers to enroll in Medicaid expansion and said she’s seeking “expedited” approval of benefits retroactive to July 2. Mills’ order also directs the department to work with lawmakers to provide “sustainable” funding for Maine’s expansion costs.

The expansion needs the approval of federal regulators, and Mills sent a letter urging that approval. There is also other work her administration and the regulators must do before Mainers can receive benefits, and before Maine receives matching federal funds.

“This is so critical,” Mills said. “People are dying right now.”

Former Gov. Paul LePage had said the Maine health agency would need over 100 new staffers to extend the benefits and blocked the expansion for months over financial concerns.

Mills said her administration will immediately start contracting for eligibility specialists, creating an online portal for applicants, working with community hospitals to identify eligible Mainers and contacting several thousand Mainers who have already applied for coverage under the expansion. She said she was still reviewing LePage’s plan that would require certain Medicaid recipients to work.

Maine Equal Justice Partners Executive Director Robyn Merrill, who led the Medicaid expansion campaign, said Mills’ move respects the will of 59 percent of Mainers who approved the 2017 referendum.

“People are waiting far too long to get the care they’re eligible for,” she said.

Mills, who was sworn in Wednesday, leads the state alongside Democrats who now control Maine’s Senate and House.

Mills and other Democrats ran on expanding access to health care and protecting abortion rights.

This week, eight Democratic representatives co-sponsored Rep. Lois Reckitt’s legislation to require Maine to fund abortion services not approved under Medicaid.

Mills is also backing a Maine Democrat’s bill to enshrine certain parts of former President Barack Obama’s federal health law into Maine law. That includes coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions, allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ health plan until age 26 and coverage for certain health benefits.

A federal district judge recently issued a decision challenging Obama’s health law. But that law remains in place during the appeals process.