Projected DHHS budget deficit increases $50 million in two weeks

By Mal Leary, Capitol News Service
Posted Nov. 21, 2011, at 6:12 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The budget deficit for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has been revised to $121 million, up from the $71 million reported to lawmakers two weeks ago.

The prospect of a deeper deficit at DHHS angered some lawmakers Monday, who questioned the credibility of the numbers provided to the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

“Some of the things in the first numbers we are now told is not a problem and others are not being addressed in this presentation,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, lead Democrat and former chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.

Rotundo said while it is clear there are budget problems at the agency, DHHS has not provided adequate explanations of the accounts that are in the red and why they are in the red.

“We can’t start cutting programs that will have a huge impact on Maine people until we have an adequate explanation of these numbers and projections,” she said.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said the information given to lawmakers Monday focused entirely on MaineCare and MaineCare-related funds.

“We are looking at other [budget] lines and one that we continue to be concerned about is general assistance,” she said.

MaineCare is the state’s name for Medicaid, the joint state-federal program that provides lower-income Mainers with an array of health-related services. The federal government pays roughly two-thirds the cost of the services.

Mayhew said the general assistance program, which reimburses some costs to cities and towns after they have reached a minimum threshold of spending, also is over budget, as it has been historically. She pegged that need at $3.7 million for this budget year.

Mayhew said the total amount needed to fill the DHHS deficit for this budget year has yet to be determined and could be presented to lawmakers as an emergency funding bill as soon as next week. She also said several of the programs that contributed to the deficit will continue into the next year and will be addressed in a later budget bill.

“I think it is fair to say that at least $50 million will continue into the next budget year and will have to be addressed in another supplemental budget,” she said.

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, co-chairman of the committee, agreed with Rotundo that the panel will need more detailed and complete information before dealing with any proposed DHHS budget.

“We obviously need more information, and the committee honed in on that,” he said, “and the commissioner responded that they will be coming forward with additional background information to explain the overruns.”

Rosen said based on the presentation to lawmakers and answers from DHHS at the meeting, he does not know how much of a budget shortfall the agency faces in this budget year. He said the deficit will have to be explained with enough detail to be credible to the committee.

“I can’t say with absolute confidence that we are sure what the ultimate demand for dollars will be to bring the [fiscal year 2012] budget into balance,” he said.

Mayhew said her staff is analyzing the large number of programs funded through MaineCare. She said bad assumptions in the past have been carried forward from year to year and the methodologies used in projecting costs have been faulty.

“We have to do a better job predicting increased demand for services and what that is going to mean to our overall budget,” she said. “Many of those errors of the past are coming home to roost.”

Mayhew said as each program has been thoroughly reviewed, initial estimates of costs have been revised. In comparing documents released two weeks ago with those given to the Appropriations Committee on Monday, several estimates are dramatically different. For example, the estimate of paying premiums required under Medicare was $5 million two weeks ago and is $10 million in documents given to lawmakers on Monday.

The Appropriations Committee members tentatively set Dec. 14-15 for public hearings on the proposed emergency budget for DHHS, assuming that Gov. Paul LePage will submit his proposal by Dec. 1-2.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/11/21/politics/projected-dhhs-budget-deficit-increases-50-million-in-two-weeks/ printed on April 25, 2014