AUGUSTA, Maine — Groups representing Maine’s elderly, children, and others who get Medicaid benefits say they fear Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to cut the program will hurt those who can least afford to lose health care coverage, and they plan to bring their concerns to state lawmakers.
In legislative hearings that begin Wednesday, people are expected to discuss the effects of cuts to prescription drugs, mental health, dental and other services, and stress their belief that the cuts will impose new costs on the health care system by sending more people to hospitals and shifting costs to private insurers. The Republican governor has proposed the cuts to avoid a $221 million shortfall.
“These cuts are unacceptable. They’re not good economically. They force people into more expensive services,” said Betsy Sweet, who lobbies for several advocacy groups representing those receiving benefits and plans to lead a State House rally as hearings get under way. Thousands of people, she said, “are scared for themselves and their families.”
Laying the groundwork for hearings that could stretch into Friday, state human services and finance officials provided an overview Tuesday to the Appropriations Committee of the numbers leading to the shortfall.
Medicaid, known in the state as MaineCare, covers 361,000 Mainers, more than a quarter of the state’s residents.
The LePage administration said the program has outgrown Mainers’ ability to pay their share of ballooning costs that can’t be sustained. To bolster his point, he launched on his website a fact sheet explaining the cuts, which must be addressed to balance the state budget.
The administration says Medicaid accounts for 21 percent of the state’s $6 billion, two-year state budget.
The governor also pointed to a report by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services which says Maine had one of the highest shares of Medicaid enrollees as a proportion of its population in 2009.
In compiling figures pointing to the $221 million Medicaid shortfall through mid-2013, Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew told lawmakers Tuesday that she repeatedly challenged the numbers crunched by state officials, urging them to double-check and look “through every possible lens.”
But the numbers don’t tell the human side of the cuts, which advocates plan to highlight.
The Disability Rights Center, for example, says eliminating dental services for adults would likely increase hospital emergency room visits for dental diseases. It also says eliminating funding for private nonmedical institutional services puts hundreds of mentally ill, elderly and others requiring assistance at risk of becoming homeless.
Mentally ill people who now go to case managers to help them deal with their disease would be forced to go to emergency rooms, and access to a crisis line by people who aren’t persistently mentally ill would be cut off, said Sweet.
Seniors would be affected by a cut in the Medicaid Savings Program by reducing prescription drug benefits.
“We are taking these cuts very, very seriously,” said Nancy Kelleher of AARP’s Maine chapter.
The Maine Children’s Alliance is concerned about proposals to eliminate health insurance for 19- and 20-year-olds and cutting child care subsidies, saying it would force parents to choose between staying home with their children and working.
Maine Equal Justice Partners is also concerned with changes that would remove young people and childless adults from Medicaid coverage, and making eligibility standards tougher for parents.
The low-income advocacy group’s Christine Hastedt said it makes no sense to deny Medicaid to young adults, “who notoriously have difficulty getting insurance.”
“Eliminating health care coverage for approximately 56,000 people with low incomes is a risky and dangerous act. It will have consequences that cannot be ignored,” Hastedt says in testimony prepared for Wednesday.
“There is no doubt that people’s health would worsen, some seriously. There is no doubt that our overall health care system would be weakened as it loses over $100 million worth of coverage.”