Proposed cuts to state welfare programs under fire

Posted March 07, 2011, at 6:31 p.m.
Last modified March 08, 2011, at 11:06 a.m.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the financial impact in Bangor of proposed changes in the city’s General Assistance program. The correct information is below.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Mainers opposed to proposed cuts in the state’s welfare programs flocked to the State House on Monday, packing the Hall of Flags for a morning rally and staying on to testify before a joint meeting of the Health and Human Services and Appropriations committees.

Among other measures, the proposed department budget submitted by the administration of Gov. Paul LePage  would freeze enrollment for some groups in Maine’s Medicaid program, MaineCare; impose a strict five-year limit for participation in the Temporary Aid for Needy Families program; eliminate funding that helps low-income seniors pay their monthly Medicare premiums; eliminate benefits for legal immigrants; and shift financial responsibility for mandated local assistance from the state to local governments.

State officials say the changes are needed to help Maine live within its means, but consumer advocates said Monday the cuts will drive the state’s most vulnerable residents — including children, families and senior citizens — further into poverty.

“The proposed cuts to the TANF program would be extremely harmful to children, throwing these families deeper into poverty and leading some families to become homeless,” said Ellie Goldberg, executive vice president of the Maine Children’s Alliance, in her testimony to the lawmakers.

Children who grow up in poverty are less likely to be successful in school and may suffer lifelong disadvantages, she said, including physical and mental illness and job instability as adults. About 25,000 Maine children live in “deep poverty” households that receive TANF benefits, Goldberg said.

“We cannot leave these children without assistance,” she said. “It is unfair to punish children for being in these circumstances. And it is not in the best interest of our state. If we fail our children now, we will suffer the economic consequences in the future.”

In addition, Goldberg said budget proposals to cut subsidies for child care and to freeze MaineCare coverage for low-income parents of young children will destabilize working families.

The budget also proposes eliminating a program that helps about 40,000 low-income seniors and residents with disabilities pay for their monthly Medicare premiums. The funding is drawn from tobacco settlement funds and not from the general fund budget, and draws an additional $30 million in federal funds, according to Carol Kontos, president in Maine of the senior citizen advocacy group AARP.

“Why would we cut this lifesaving program?” Kontos asked. “How will someone who lives on $14,500 a year have the money to now pay $115 per month to maintain their health insurance for physician visits?”

Portland resident El-Fadel Arbab described coming with his family to Maine in 2004 as a refugee from genocide in Darfur, Sudan. Benefits now targeted for elimination allowed him to enroll in English classes and helped his family stay housed and fed, he said. Arbab, now a U.S. citizen,  said he has worked at a number of paying jobs, pays taxes and continues to look for employment that will allow his family to live independently.

“Gov. LePage’s proposed budget cuts will hurt the immigrant community,” he said. “But we, the people, elected him to office to help us, not to hurt us.”

Shawn Yardley, director of the city of Bangor’s Department of Health and Community Services, told the lawmakers at the public hearing that cuts like these and others under consideration will undermine Maine’s already-frayed social safety net and increase demand for general assistance.

General assistance, a state program administered at the municipal level, provides short-term emergency support to the most destitute Mainers. But the budget calls for a dramatic shift in financial responsibility for general assistance, requiring municipalities to come up with 25 percent of their general assistance budgets instead of the 10 percent currently required. In Bangor, he said, this would pass on an additional burden to local taxpayers of about $700,000 over the biennium.

“All of these changes will result in more demand on service centers” — such as Bangor and Portland — “shift costs, and be harmful to very vulnerable Maine people,” Yardley said.

In introductory remarks to the committee members, Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the cuts are needed to adapt to reductions in federal funding for Medicaid, restrictions governing the use of funds allocated to states for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and the general economic downturn.

On a more positive note, she observed that the proposed DHHS budget contains enhanced funding for community-based mental health services and primary care centers aimed at driving down costly hospital emergency services.

But the budget also contains “some very difficult choices,” Mayhew acknowledged.

“I expect that these and other proposed changes will come under intense scrutiny during the budget deliberations,” she said.

The Health and Human Services budget will be under review in public hearings all this week. Hearings may be monitored online through the Maine Legislature website, http://www.maine.gov/legis/.

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