Collins, King list what they don’t like about Senate health care bill

Good morning from Augusta. Republicans in the U.S. Senate released their long-secret Affordable Care Act replacement bill on Thursday.

It’s far-reaching, proposing a nearly $1 trillion tax cut mostly for corporations and high earners, scaling back tax credits, limiting Medicaid spending and winding down the Medicaid expansion in current law.

Early reviews from Maine’s senators were mostly bad, including from Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican who could be crucial to the bill’s passage, especially after four conservative senators came out against their party’s bill for not going far enough in repeal.

Collins said in a Thursday statement that she had “concerns” about the bill and would review it into the weekend. But she elaborated on MSNBC to say she’s “worried about what the impact will be on people who are very vulnerable and have health care needs.”

The Senate bill is more moderate than the House Republican bill passed by that chamber in May, but it’s based on the same framework. For example, the Senate plan adjusts tax credit based on income, while the House plan doesn’t. Collins noted that change and another on Thursday that would benefit low-income people relative to the House plan.

But she still said that “out-of-pocket costs would increase under the Senate bill as well” and she “can’t support” a bill that will increase premiums for seniors, dump “tens of million” from insurance and make “deep cuts” to Medicaid.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that 23 million would lose insurance by 2023 under the House plan. The office’s estimate on the Senate bill is expected next week.

Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, didn’t have to wait for that estimate to slam the bill in a Facebook video, calling it “a really cruel bill” that would have “a devastating effect economically on Maine, on our hospitals, and on our rural health care system — and all of this in the name of a huge tax cut for the wealthiest Americans.”

Any changes to Medicaid would have an outsized impact in Maine, where 23 percent of the population was covered by it in 2015, even after deep cuts to eligibility under Gov. Paul LePage. That share was higher than the national average, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Such an approach also looks unpopular in Maine, with the AARP, which opposes the bill, releasing polling data on Thursday that showed wide opposition to many items in the bill among Mainers aged 50 and over, including charging older people more for plans, Medicaid cuts and the tax breaks. We’ll know more about the bill’s Maine impacts next week. — Michael Shepherd

Quick hits

  • A bill designed to lower prices for consumers on generic prescriptions drugs has cleared the Senate. Sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, LD 1280 seeks to force drug companies to provide their products to generic producers so that generic versions of medications can be produced when patents expires. Specifically, the bill would amend the Maine Pharmacy Act and contains a provision to protect drug manufacturers from liabilities that arise around the generic substitutes. During a lengthy debate in the Senate on Thursday, Jackson said pharmaceutical companies are making “an obscene fortune on the backs of our families.” The measure passed on a mixed-caucus 19-16 vote and now heads to the House of Representatives. — Christopher Cousins
  • Jackson batted 2-for-2 Thursday. His “buy America build Maine” bill also passed through the Senate. LD 956 would require that, except for in certain circumstances, state building projects and procurements use goods and products that originate  in the United States. It also contains a provision that if two or more “substantially similar” bids are made for the same project, any in-state contractors — which because of an amendment could including companies that have at least 60 percent employees from Maine — would be given a chance to match the low bid. The bill passed through the Senate on Thursday without a roll call and faces more votes in both chambers. The Office of Fiscal and Program Review estimates that the bill could cost the state more over time because of the requirement to buy domestic products but did not attach a dollar figure. — Christopher Cousins
  • Abigail Bennett continues to add to her political resume. University of Maine student Bennett, among other things, is the former chairman of the Maine Federation of College Republicans and current daughter of former Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett. As of last weekend, she was elected to the executive committee of the College Republican National Committee, where she will serve as national secretary for the next two years. Bennett studies financial economics and hails from Oxford. She has been involved in politics in official capacities since her first year in college. — Christopher Cousins

Today in A-town

Action at the State House will be lopsided today, with the Senate coming in for quick formalities and the House prepared for a marathon session. To satisfy a provision in the Maine Constitution that bars adjournment for more than two business days, the Senate is convening for a few minutes today to do the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer. Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, will be at the rostrum and Jackson will lead the prayer. We don’t expect the Senate to reconvene after that until Tuesday.

The House calendar is a different story and is full of bills and resolves to consider, starting with a joint order to create the Task Force on Health Care Coverage for All of Maine. That order passed Thursday in the Senate, 20-15. Also among the bills due for consideration is one to create a crime of aggravated assault against law enforcement officers and a bill to increase the legal age to buy tobacco products in Maine to 21. We expect there to be considerably more work added to the House calendar through supplements. Also, vetoes from the governor continue to roll in. Three more were delivered on Thursday.

Meanwhile, legislative leaders continue to negotiate toward compromise on the state biennial budget and the Appropriations Committee is scheduled to meet at some point this morning for an agenda of largely routine business. One job left to be done by that committee is public hearings and work sessions on a number of bills that propose bond borrowing. It’s unclear when that will happen, with some speculation that it might be later this year during a special session of the Legislature. Here’s their soundtrack.Christopher Cousins

Reading list

It’s a good/bad thing there are lots of spinach varieties

Legislative leaders and Rep. Mark Lawrence, D-South Berwick, agreed that the freedom to grow water spinach in Maine is important enough to have introduced an after-deadline bill to allow just that.

Water spinach is — as many of us have recently learned — a common ingredient in Asian cuisine. A business in Lawrence’s district asked him to help clear regulatory hurdles so they could grow and provide it as local produce to Maine eateries.

Locally sourced food, government deregulation: Sounds like something everyone in Maine would love. Right?

Here’s the rub: Water spinach requires a federal permit to grow and Lawrence’s bill sought to direct the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to provide information about how.

Here’s another key difference: Uncontrolled, it can become an invasive plant. That’s why LePage vetoed the bill and by extension, water spinach, which he called a “noxious aquatic weed.” The veto was sustained Thursday in the House, 92-53.

I am concerned about what message this sends my children, who I frequently encourage to eat their spinach.

“But the government says it’s bad,” believe it or not, is an argument political reporters are prone to hearing from their offspring. Another one is “but the government says it’s OK,” which I am prepared to face when the kiddos ask me someday about marijuana.

Confusing the issue is that spinach also can be a nickname for marijuana, which I used to call “hippy spinach” in college. Thanks a lot, governor. Here’s your soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

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Michael Shepherd

About Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after covering state, federal and local issues for the Kennebec Journal for three years. He's a Hallowell native who now lives in Gardiner. He graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.