The governor had wanted to immediately toss all 19,000 of the childless adults off the rolls as well as 14,000 parents of children who qualified for MaineCare because of family poverty.

LePage also wanted to deny or reduce benefits to tens of thousands more, from disabled people in assisted-living homes to those who get state help with prescription-drug expenses. About 360,000 people, more than a quarter of the population, get MaineCare benefits of some sort. Since the feds pay two-thirds of MaineCare expenses, each million cut by Augusta results in $2 million less from Washington for recipients.

The DHHS shortfall being discussed covers the remainder of this fiscal year and the next. MaineCare payments to hospitals and other health-care providers will stop in mid-April unless the DHHS kitty is resupplied with cash.

To prevent this, legislative leaders of both parties are working to secure a two-thirds "emergency" approval in each chamber of a solution. This would allow the solution to go into effect immediately, instead of 90 days after passage, which is the case with a majority-passed bill. Republicans, controlling both House and Senate, theoretically could pass a majority budget. But a 90-day delay would be too late to prevent the state from running out of MaineCare funds.

LePage has blamed an "overly generous" MaineCare system for the shortfall. Democrats and even some Republican legislators have said the shortfall is more complicated, due in part to such things as a bad computer system.

Also, as Republican Appropriations Committee chairman Senator Richard Rosen, of Bucksport, put it in an interview, the shortfall is due to "chronic underfunding," incriminating the years of Democratic rule.

The Appropriations Committee deal pays MaineCare bills until the end of the 2012 fiscal year, June 30, through a mishmash of actions. At press time all the details weren't clear, but it cuts the budget for those childless adults for the next fiscal year from $80 million to $40 million, which may result in half as many people being served. These are among the poorest and sickest people in the state.

It takes the 14,000 MaineCare parents off the rolls on October 1. The deal proposes a one-day borrowing increase of $59 million from the next fiscal year to this one. Reimbursement rates to hospitals for MaineCare patients will be cut. And $25 million in government "streamlining" that Democrats and Republicans had previously agreed to is included.

"The fact that the governor is not happy" with the deal, said Cain, shows the Democrats' beneficial influence on it.

"We were able to stay at the negotiating table and agree to a solution that protects health care for thousands," Dawn Hill, of Cape Neddick, the Senate Democrat on the committee, said in a statement.

That's true, but it also throws thousands of very needy people overboard. And the legislative actions are likely to get crueler. The debate in progress is only Round One in the DHHS funding fight for this session.

Even if the current deal passes, in Round Two the Legislature will need to find another $80 million or so to fill in the remainder of the hole, for fiscal year 2013. In addition to MaineCare, programs such as Head Start and the anti-smoking and immunization campaigns of the Fund for a Healthy Maine will be threatened.

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