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Maine Democrats scramble after governor blocks Medicaid expansion

By Dave Sherwood

BOWDOINHAM, Maine (Reuters) - Democratic legislators in Maine scrambled on Tuesday to muster the votes needed to override Republican Governor Paul LePage's late-night veto of a bill to expand Medicaid coverage to an additional 60,000 people.

LePage late on Monday blocked a compromise bill that would have increased the number of low-income people eligible for the federal insurance program, an expansion allowed by the U.S. healthcare reform that stands as the signature domestic legislative achievement of President Barack Obama's first term.

Lawmakers would need a two-thirds majority to override the veto. The compromise bill, with support from some Republican lawmakers, passed the state legislature last week, by votes of 97-51 in the House and 23-12 in the Senate. The legislature also approved a separate bill to pay back $484 million of debt owed to the state's hospitals.

In vetoing the Medicaid bill, LePage warned against repeating past mistakes, calling previous expansions of Medicaid - which contributed to the heavy hospital debt - "well-meaning, tugging at the heart strings of people across the political spectrum," but ultimately flawed.

Democrats, defending the bill, cited studies from the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation that show Maine would save $690 million by accepting federal money for Medicaid expansion.

Under the Affordable Care Act healthcare reform, the federal government covers 100 percent of the costs of Medicaid expansion for three years, after which federal coverage falls to 90 percent.

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Obama's healthcare overhaul but allowed states to opt out of a provision expanding Medicaid.

Maine's compromise legislation would cut off expansion after full federal coverage expired in three years, then require re-authorization by the state legislature.

According to the latest federal figures available, Maine had 378,000 people on Medicaid in April 2010.

LePage's veto puts him at odds with other Republican governors, including Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio, who have shown support for accepting federal funds for Medicaid expansion.

On Monday, Arizona's Republican governor, Jan Brewer, signed legislation making Arizona the 24th state to approve Medicaid expansion.

(Editing by Scott Malone and John Wallace)

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