Panel OKs DHHS budget proposal

By Meg Haskell, BDN Staff
Posted Jan. 16, 2009, at 9:40 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee have endorsed the majority of items in the department’s supplemental budget proposal for the current fiscal year, paving the way for significant reductions in services to Maine people.

The budget revision reflects a $140 million revenue downturn in the state budget, with every department required to make cuts in planned spending. The Department of Health and Human Services portion of the supplemental budget identifies about $37.5 million in General Fund spending reductions, including $4.5 million in reduced Medicaid reimbursements to Maine hospitals. The hospital portion of the proposed cuts is still being reviewed by the HHS Committee and was not included in the report it issued Friday.

Approximately $23 million in federal matching funds could be forfeited as a result of the General Fund reductions.

“Some of these votes were very difficult,” said committee co-chairman Sen. Joseph Brannigan, D-Portland, reporting Friday morning to members of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. Brannigan’s committee had been reviewing the proposal for the past two days.

The cuts, which would be effective through the end of the fiscal year on June 30, include about $550,000 for services for adults and $645,600 for services for children. Also included is a General Fund reduction of $2 million in state funding of room and board expenses for people with disabilities. Funding also is cut for elder services, substance abuse services, children’s foster care, hospice services and a number of DHHS staff positions in the proposed budget supplement.

Funding for the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness faces another $10,000 cut after losing nearly 50 percent of its state-funded operational budget last year. NAMI director Carole Caruthers said Friday that her agency cannot absorb another funding cut and continue to serve its mission of advocacy and support.

While the changes in the supplemental budget will be painful, she said, much greater reductions for mental health services are expected in the next biennial budget, which faces a shortfall of $838 million.

“None of these cuts are easy for anybody,” said Rep. Sarah Lewin, R-Eliot, a member of the HHS Committee. “Some of us feel we need to take a very long look at the structure of this department to be sure we’re living within our means.”

The committee also endorsed the department’s proposal to require nursing homes, residential care facilities and assisted living facilities to bill the state’s Medicaid program monthly instead of weekly or biweekly as many do now. The change was slated to take place in 2010 and is needed in order to comply with the state’s new electronic billing system, according to Richard Erb, executive director of the Maine Health Care Association, which represents long-term-care facilities.

By making the switch now, the final payment to these facilities for the current year would be pushed into the beginning of the next fiscal year, saving the state about $7 million in this year’s General Fund budget.

Erb said facilities that now bill weekly or biweekly are likely to encounter a cash-flow problem with a sudden switch to monthly reimbursements. Their ability to pay employees and vendors could be compromised, he said.

Erb said he will be meeting with DHHS Commissioner Brenda Harvey next week to explore ways the state might be able to help cushion the transition for nursing homes and other facilities.

The HHS Committee will report its recommendation for cuts in hospital reimbursements on Tuesday or Wednesday of next week. The Appropriations Committee has set Jan. 23 as the target for approving the supplemental budget.

mhaskell@bangordailynews.net

990-8291

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/01/16/news/panel-oks-dhhs-budget-proposal/ printed on December 21, 2014