AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage's administration spent nearly $53,000 on private lawyers in its failed attempt to remove thousands of low-income young adults from the state's Medicaid program after being told by Maine's attorney general that he couldn't win the case, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The Republican governor went to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals after the federal government denied his request to end Medicaid coverage for about 6,000 19- and 20-year olds. He was forced to seek outside counsel after Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, declined to represent the state.
Mills refused to represent the administration because the case had "little legal merit" and "wouldn't be a good use of time and money," she said in an interview this month. She even joined the federal government in fighting LePage's effort in court.
But she allowed the governor to hire outside counsel because of the earnestness of his position and because she said it's not her "aim to prevent the governor, as the chief executive, from pursuing public policy in initiatives."
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services paid $51,918 to Portland law firm Roach, Hewitt, Ruprecht, Sanchez & Bischoff from June to December, according to documents provided to the AP through a Freedom of Access Act request. An additional $751 was paid to the firm through LePage's office before the money was transferred to DHHS, documents from his office show.
All payments came from the governor's contingency fund, which he can, for the most part, use at his discretion.
A federal appeals court in November sided with the federal government in rejecting LePage's request. The court agreed that Maine can't roll back coverage for 19- and 20-year-olds because the Affordable Care Act requires states to maintain their level of coverage for children until 2019.
Jack Comart, litigation director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, which opposed the governor's move, said the private lawyer representing the administration "made the best out of a bad case."
"But the court found no merit in their arguments," he said. "So it was not a good use of taxpayer dollars."
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the governor has every right to seek outside counsel when the attorney general refuses to take a case.
DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew also defended the expense, saying the administration pursued the case because it believes the tax dollars spent to cover the young adults should instead go to help the elderly and disabled.
Maine shouldn't be "stuck with a program subject to the whims of Washington D.C," she said in a statement.
State officials have estimated that cutting coverage for the 19-and-20 year-olds would save the state nearly $4 million a year.
Mayhew criticized Mills for actively opposing "her own state," which she said drove up the administration's legal bills by thousands of dollars. Mills dismissed that idea and said none of the actions her office took increased the administration's fees or involvement in the case.
LePage has suggested that the legal fight might not be over, telling the Maine Public Broadcasting Network that he hopes the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case. A spokesman for Maine DHHS said it's not prepared to discuss plans for future litigation.
Comart said it's unlikely that the Supreme Court would consider the case because there is no disagreement between courts to be settled.