SEIU pressures Maine senators

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is seizing on the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to press for an extension of funding for the disabled.

The SEIU argues that disabled Americans could see their medical treatments lapse unless additional Medicaid funds are approved. The union says approval of the funds would also help prevent layoffs for thousands of healthcare service workers, many of whom are members of the SEIU.

The Senate has failed several times to move a tax-extenders package that includes $16 billion in additional funding for state Medicaid programs through the first half of 2011. Under current law, that additional funding expires at the end of the year. The House has already approved a similar funding boost. 

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Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is said to be working on a new version of the tax extenders bill that would include a six-month extension of the enhanced federal Medicaid payments for states.

The SEIU is targeting Maine Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe to pass the funding, according to a union official. The two senators have come under increasing pressure from the labor movement on a host of issues.

In a statement released Monday, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry called for an extension of Medicaid funding. 

“If the Senate does not approve an extension of Medicaid funding, many states will be forced to cut funding for the home- and community-based services which make it possible for people with disabilities to live independently within the community,” Henry said. 

“SEIU is calling on senators of both parties to pass legislation extending Medicaid funding to the states before the August recess. This funding is needed to save jobs and to protect health coverage for those in need,” Henry said.

Along with Collins and Snowe, Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) will be lobbied by the SEIU to extend the Medicaid funds, according to the union official. Those four Republicans have sometimes voted to move forward on Democrats’ jobs bills, such as extending jobless benefits. 

Time is running out for action on the Medicaid funds. Next week, senators are expected to debate and vote on the confirmation of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court before the August recess. That leaves this week to complete any unfinished business in Congress’s upper chamber. 

Last month, the SEIU’s affiliate in Maine rallied at the offices of Collins and Snowe and urged the senators to support an extension of Medicaid funds. The labor-backed Americans United for Change has also pressured the senators in television ads. 

The union sees extending the funds as a jobs issue for its members. According to Wells Fargo economist Mark Vitner, state and local governments will cut about 200,000 employees this year if Congress does not extend the Medicaid funds. 

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Regan Lachapelle, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said Senate Democrats want to move an extension of the funds but will need GOP help. 

“Democrats are committed to providing assistance to states so that teachers and first responders do not lose their jobs. While we have worked repeatedly to do so, Republicans have blocked our efforts each time,” Lachapelle said. “We will continue to work to provide this critical assistance, but will need Republican support.”

Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Collins, said the senator believes an extension of Medicaid funds is “necessary” and supported legislation that passed in the Senate but later stalled in the House that would have extended the funds for another six months. But extending the funds should not add to the deficit, according to Kelley. 

“[Sen. Collins] has said that the cost of extending [Medicaid funds] should be largely offset and not contribute to the fiscal problems facing our nation,” Kelley said.