AUGUSTA, Maine — Even though it is early in the budget year, the Department of Education is already projecting that it will need additional funds to pay for the Children’s Developmental Services program.
“We have been providing them with software to do budgeting and transportation software, so we are doing what we can to reduce costs,” Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said in an interview. “But those services need to be provided to kids, they are entitled to those services.”
He said even though the state has been reducing administrative costs, the program has had a revenue shortfall because of changes in Medicaid rules that reduced the amount of federal funding available for the mandated program.
CDS provides both case management and direct services for children through age 5, with needs ranging from learning disabilities to mental health services. Some services can be covered under the state’s Medicaid program, called MaineCare, which means the federal government pays roughly two-thirds of the cost for those children that meet the eligibility standards.
“We are looking at a revenue shortfall of the program of roughly between $600,000 and $900,000 this year,” Deputy Education Commissioner Jim Rier said. “I hope it is on the lower end but we won’t know until later in the year what the shortfall will be.”
Rier was the DOE finance director in the previous administration and has been dealing with the reorganization and restructuring of the program for a couple of years.
There was a major reorganization of CDS that took effect July 1, 2010, that reduced the number of centers and the administrative overhead of the system. That was in part a response to federal concerns that some of the services being billed to MaineCare were not allowed and there were inconsistent regulations between CDS sites across the state.
“We have addressed a lot of the issues that have come up,” Rier said, “but we are not done.”
He said a question mark is how many children will exercise their option to continue with CDS services for another year because their birthdays fall between July 1 and Oct.1.
“We do not know yet the full impact of that,” Rier said. “We have included an estimate of 117 students at a cost of $966,000. I still remain concerned that number will be higher.”
Rier said after the first quarter of the budget year ends on Oct. 1, he will be able to give lawmakers a better estimate of the size of the shortfall expected in the program.
“There is no question we will have one,” Bowen said, “and at some point we are going to have to bring that budget back into balance.”
That is a concern of the legislature’s budget writing Appropriations Committee that is looking at lackluster revenues and shortfalls in other state programs that usually are not identified until closer to the second session that convenes in January.
“We will be watching this very closely,” said Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, the co-chairman of the committee. “This has been an issue before the committee now for a couple of sessions.”
He said the panel has spent considerable time over the last two years as the program was reorganized and efforts were made to reduce costs.
Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, said DOE has already had to scramble this year to find $2.3 million in savings from other accounts to bail out the program for the budget year that ended June 30. She said the program is an important one but needs to stay within budget.
“We need to look at every program and make sure they are as efficiently operated as possible,” she said.
But, it may be difficult to get definitive figures on the cost of the program. A study released a year ago found the problem of children with learning disabilities should be addressed early, but many are not being diagnosed until they start school. It indicated more money may be needed in the future to meet the need.
Only 22 percent of Maine children are being screened before starting school, according to census data. In 2009, 812 children were first identified as needing special services when they started school. There were already 875 children receiving services through CDS at that time.