BANGOR, Maine — More doctors and nurses. Transportation services. Consistent funding for mental health care. Expanded housing options for the homeless, the elderly and the disabled.
Health care and social service providers at a meeting in Bangor Friday morning submitted their wish lists for the coming legislative session to newly elected lawmakers. Seven area legislators and legislators-to-be attended the educational breakfast in the council chamber at City Hall, hosted by the Bangor Region Public Health Advisory Board.
The goal of the meeting, said Shawn Yardley, director of the city’s Department of Health and Community Service and a member of the advisory board, was to brief newly elected legislators about the efforts to create a public health infrastructure in Maine.
“We hope they’ll go away seeing us as a resource as they go off to Augusta and try to deal with some very difficult issues,” Yardley said.
Earlier this week, Gov. John Baldacci imposed $80 million in immediate state spending curtailments, with another $20 million to $70 million expected to be eliminated from the budget in effect through the end of June 2009. Another round of severe cuts is anticipated for the next two-year budget cycle. The Department of Health and Human Services — and the many nonprofit agencies it contracts with — along with the Department of Education, are expected to bear the brunt of the budget cuts.
Yardley said public health concerns become more relevant in hard financial times, as more people face poverty, hunger, homelessness and loss of access to basic medical, mental health and substance abuse services. Hospital emergency rooms, food pantries, shelters and jails are among the first institutions affected, he said, but churches, schools and municipal governments also feel the impact.
Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, told the new legislators that it is important for them to uphold the value of a stable public health system — something Maine has never had. Aside from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and municipal public health departments in Portland and Bangor, he said, the state his-torically has relied on a “fragmented, disconnected, uncoordinated system” of local and regional agencies, instead of developing a coherent network of county-based public health departments as many other states have.
Last year, in response to legislation Rosen submitted in 2005, Maine implemented an informal but standardized statewide system of eight public health districts. The plan calls on public and private groups in each district to partner up in promoting healthful lifestyles, identifying potential health hazards, advocating for laws that protect health and safety, and planning for large-scale emergencies.
Rosen called on his fellow lawmakers and others at the meeting to “rise above” funding issues and “take the larger view” in supporting the emerging public health system.
Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, said lawmakers must seek out information from community leaders as they head into the thorny legislative environment.
“We all need to use these relationships to get through what is going to be a very difficult time” in Augusta, she said.
Rep.-elect Steven Butterfield, D-Bangor, said he will seek guidance from the diverse coalition of Bangor-area providers with identified common goals. The group “will be a huge resource for me,” he said.
“We all need to be very conscious of the enormous pressure health care costs put on the state budget,” Butterfield said. But while cutting back on essential health services may save money in the short term, he said, the strategy often leads to increased spending later.
“We can’t rob Peter to pay Paul,” he said. “But when you work in a two-year budget cycle, there is no capacity for long-term planning. We seem to just stumble from budget to budget, from deficit to deficit.”
For more about Maine’s emerging public health system and its activities in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, visit www.whatyoudomatters.org.