DHHS budget protest in day two

Posted Jan. 13, 2010, at 9:05 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Hundreds of people swarmed the State House for a second day Wednesday in opposition to budget cuts that speakers predicted would harm Maine’s disabled and mentally ill residents, potentially without saving the state money.

In hours of emotional testimony, speakers urged legislative budget-writers to find alternatives to proposals to reduce funding for home care for people with physical or mental disabilities as well as for group homes.

Patients and health professionals also warned against further reductions to programs that subsidize counseling and outpatient services for the mentally ill, cautioning that such cuts ultimately force the state to shell out more to treat people in emergency rooms or to incarcerate them.

The line outside the committee room was dozens deep for most of the day as people — many of them in wheelchairs — waited for their chance to put a human face on the budget cuts.

Mary and Steven Jewett, who live in the Waldo County town of Liberty, told lawmakers that the bill for Mary’s care in a nursing home several years ago was more than $360 per day. Today, Mary receives home-based health care at a cost of $40 to $50 a day, yet her quality of life is much better — a fact that shows in her progress.

“Without the program, I wouldn’t be able to take care of her,” an emotional Steven Jewett told members of the Appropriations and Health and Human Services committees. “There are other ways of cutting. The elderly and the disabled, they can’t go out and work like we do. It’s going to cost more if they have to go into a nursing home.”

“I want to stay in my home,” said Mary Jewett, whose medical condition severely restricts her mobility and speech.

There were parents who said that without home-based care, their children would have to be institutionalized rather than live with their families. Individuals with developmental disabilities spoke about the importance of state-subsidized day programs that allow them to make friends and feel like a part of society.

Others warned that cutting state funding could force group homes to shut down or hire less-skilled staff for lower wages.

“Without very good care, she is apt to be damaged very greatly,” said one father, whose wheelchair-bound daughter had what he described as a complex seizure disorder requiring constant adjustments to medication and treatment. “We were very close to losing her two years ago when she took a fall. … I would appeal to you not to make these cuts.”

The Department of Health and Human Services accounts for roughly $68 million of the cuts in Gov. John Baldacci’s budget, which is about 15.5 percent of the total reductions.

During an afternoon press conference, Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said he used to jokingly refer to himself as the CEO of one of the state’s largest mental health institutions because so many inmates suffer from mental illness. Today, that’s no longer a laughing matter because it is true, Ross said.

Cutting funding to mental health programs, such as counseling, only leads to higher correctional system costs as untreated individuals end up behind bars, he said.

“That is not saving, that is cost shifting and it is something that we are very, very concerned about,” Ross said.

Advocates for mental health programs called on lawmakers to consider a 1-cent increase in the sales tax to preserve funding for programs critical to helping mentally ill patients remain productive members of society. Many people held signs reading “Take our pennies, not our benefits.”

Baldacci has threatened to veto any tax increases to cover the budget gap. But Elaine Ecker, executive director of the Consumer Council System of Maine, which advocates for consumers of mental health services, said that shouldn’t discourage lawmakers.

“We have the system in place to veto the governor’s veto,” she said.

Overriding a governor’s veto takes a two-thirds vote in the Legislature, which would require the Democratic majority to gain the support of some Republican lawmakers.

Public hearings on the budget will continue today when the Appropriations Committee takes up $73 million in proposed cuts to the Department of Education.

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