Get ready for Round 7 in Maine’s Medicaid expansion fight

The parties on both sides of the debate over expanding Medicaid in Maine dug new trenchlines on Wednesday as Maine careens toward a referendum in November that some see as a potential national barometer on health care and conservative principles.

The question of whether to expand the taxpayer-funded health care system here comes to the Nov. 7 ballot by citizen initiative after at least six legislative expansion attempts under Republican Gov. Paul LePage have failed.

Maine’s referendum looked like it could have been a moot point after the election of Republican President Donald Trump, who promised during his campaign to repeal the Obama-era Affordable Care Act and cancel the incentives for states to beef up their Medicaid programs. However, Trump’s and Republicans’ resounding failure to achieve that goal, so far, has turned the magnifying glass toward the Pine Tree State.

The volleys in what is sure to be a bruising campaign have been coming sporadically but will intensify following the Yes on 2 campaign’s official launch Wednesday with events in Bangor and Lewiston. Both cities lie in Maine’s more conservative 2nd Congressional District, where the question will live or die.

Maine Equal Justice Partners Executive Director Robyn Merrill, who will be one of the public faces of the campaign on behalf of expansion, set the theme we’ll be hearing a lot about between now and November: A “yes” vote will extend health insurance to at least 70,000 Mainers and provide a much-needed financial boon to Maine’s rural hospitals and health care clinics.

Another powerful voice who will be dealing with the question of expansion in other channels, most notably congressional deliberations, will be Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who has not said whether she supports the measure but has cited her concerns that cutting Medicaid would hurt rural hospitals and clinics as a major reason she is one of three Senate Republicans who blocked the most recent congressional repeal effort. Collins has said that if Maine does expand its Medicaid program, it should model Indiana, where recipients are required to keep savings accounts to help pay for their medical costs.

Countering expansion proponents will be many Maine Republicans, most notably LePage, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of the 2nd Congressional District, and Brent Littlefield, a behind-the-scenes political strategist who has long worked for both LePage and Poliquin.

Littlefield and the Welfare to Work Political Action Committee spearheaded the opposition on Wednesday in a news release. Their arguments are the same as they’ve been for years: “Able-bodied adults” should not be eligible for taxpayer funded health care and expansion would be financially ruinous for Maine in the long run. Another familiar argument that will continue is that expansion drains resources for programs that support some of Maine’s most needy people, though expansion proponents call that a false equivalency.

“This makes it even more difficult for the state to take care of the hundreds of cognitively and physically disabled Mainers who have been languishing on waitlists,” said Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, a member of the Legislature’s budget committee who has long been a staunch expansion opponent.

A major challenge for both sides will be turnout in an off-year election when targeted campaign messaging and get-out-the-vote strategy will have a much greater impact on the outcome. –– Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

Former Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett endorsed state Sen. Eric Brakey’s bid against U.S. Sen. Angus King. A big-name Republican endorsing the only Republican in a big race isn’t usually noteworthy, but Brakey began his uphill campaign in April still has some work to do to get the party behind him. Since ruling out a run against King in May, Gov. Paul LePage has said he could run if Brakey doesn’t gain momentum and that he won’t run. Brakey, a second-term state senator from Auburn, will hope that Bennett’s endorsement is good a sign. In a statement, Bennett said Brakey “has demonstrated the kind of principled leadership and dedication to accountable governance that we need.” — Michael Shepherd

Susan Collins will continue a series of hearings exploring solutions to federal health care impasse. After a Senate Republican effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act failed in July, Collins, who voted against a measure to repeal the law, pinned her hopes on a public process hosted by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, on which she serves. That committee began churning through hearings Wednesday with a number of state insurance commissioners. Today, the committee is scheduled to hear testimony from a number of governors, including Republican Charlie Baker from Massachusetts. The four-part series of hearings is scheduled to continue next week. — Christopher Cousins

The governor announced Tuesday that he’s appointed a new director of his energy office. Steven McGrath, who started the new job on Aug. 25, comes from the private sector, with a history of administering a financial management company and as the CFO of Downeast Energy Corp. McGrath, of Cape Elizabeth, holds a business finance degree from New York University, a master in mathematics from the University of Maine and a bachelor of science degree from Bates College. McGrath replaces Patrick Woodcock, who left in December. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

Eat It-themed Chinese food — if you dare

Count us at the Daily Brief among the masses who are looking forward to the release of the new Stephen King-inspired movie, “It.” Though the past has shown that movies based on King’s writing can be instant classics (Shawshank Redemption, The Shining, Stand By Me), others have been pretty terrible (Maximum Overdrive, sheesh). From the looks of the previews, It could fall in the former category and be amply terrifying to cause generations of nightmares.

The Bangor-based Oriental Jade restaurant has a connection as the inspiration for the “Jade of the Orient” eatery in King’s book. In one scene, murderous clown Pennywise sends messages to the story’s antagonists through eyeballs inside fortune cookies. (Ick. I usually don’t eat the fortune cookies anyway.)

Starting today, the restaurant will feature an It-themed menu, including the eyeball cookies and drinks like “The Suffering Bill,” named after some of the story’s characters.

Judging by the previews, the movie could ruin your appetite so we recommend dinner and THEN the flick. Here’s your soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

Programming note

Daily Brief will take Friday off because we will be hiding under the covers. We’ll return next week. Have a good weekend.

With tips, pitches, questions or feedback, email us at If you’re reading The Daily Brief on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics and policy delivered via email most weekday mornings.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.