Crowds pack State House to oppose MaineCare cuts

Dozens join in a rally voicing their concerns about proposed budget cuts in the Medicaid system, during a rally at the State House in Augusta on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011.
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Dozens join in a rally voicing their concerns about proposed budget cuts in the Medicaid system, during a rally at the State House in Augusta on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011.
Posted Dec. 14, 2011, at 12:36 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 15, 2011, at 12:18 p.m.

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Natasha Mayers of Whitefield voices her concerns about proposed budget cuts in the Medicaid system, during a rally at the State House in Augusta on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011.
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Natasha Mayers of Whitefield voices her concerns about proposed budget cuts in the Medicaid system, during a rally at the State House in Augusta on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011.
Demonstrators gather in the Hall of Flags in the State House in Augusta to protest cuts to MaineCare on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011.
Demonstrators gather in the Hall of Flags in the State House in Augusta to protest cuts to MaineCare on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011. Buy Photo

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage plans to hold a press conference Thursday afternoon regarding the proposed cuts to MaineCare that would eliminate health coverage for 65,000 residents, even as the second day of public hearings are under way.

On Wednesday, hundreds of people lined the halls of the State House to speak out about the proposed cuts.

Attendees patiently took turns at the microphone before the Legislature’s Appropriations and Health and Human Services committees while just outside a rally opposing the cuts pulsed with applause.

Dan Nichols, 58, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, told lawmakers the cuts, designed to address a $220 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services budget, threaten his care at the Portland Center for Assisted Living.

“Instead of laying off the staff at assisted living facilities, they should be canonized,” he said. “They’re all saints.”

Many of the morning’s speakers addressed the proposal’s call to eliminate funding for residential facilities for the mentally and physically disabled, labeled “private, nonmedical institutions,” to save $47 million in state funds.

Valerie Carter of Bangor planned to tell lawmakers about her 28-year-old son, Jeremy, who has autism and developmental disabilities.

“While it’s sometimes challenging to meet those needs, it would be a lot worse not to meet them,” she said outside the hearing room.

Carter said she worries the cuts will jeopardize the safe and stable environment of her son’s group home and lead to higher costs down the line.

James LaBrecque, also of Bangor, was the sole attendee to speak in favor of the MaineCare cuts. LaBrecque, whose 26-year-old son suffered brain damage at age 2, has long advocated for families having problems with DHHS. He said the department wastes money on bureaucratic inefficiency and frivolous services at the expense of Mainers who really need care.

“When money gets tight, it’s going to affect people like my son,” said LaBrecque, who serves as a technical adviser to LePage on energy issues.

Another supporter of the cuts, a man wearing a LePage button, signed up to speak but left before his name was called, according to chamber staff.

Sally Soule of Kittery told the panel about her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and receives care at a private, nonmedical institution. Money ran out after paying for home care first for her father and then for her mother, who was forced to enroll in MaineCare, Soule said.

“Budget cuts may be needed, however, they should not come at the expense of Maine’s most vulnerable,” she said.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said the cuts will affect not only residential care facilities in Maine’s most populous city but also children, the homeless and others in need of health services. Brennan formerly served as the Senate chairman of both the Health and Human Services Committee and the Blue Ribbon Commission on MaineCare.

“The magnitude and the impact of this proposal will disproportionately affect the city of Portland,” he said.

Richard Malone, the bishop of Portland, said he appreciated the challenge of balancing the department’s budget but testified that the biblical imperative to care for the poor holds equally true for secular society.

“Health care is a basic human right,” said Malone, whose diocese encompasses all of Maine. “It is no less essential than food, shelter and clothing.”

At 2 p.m., 142 people had registered to address the committees.

The rally, organized by Maine Can Do Better, a coalition of 150 groups representing the elderly, children, the poor and churches, focused on the cuts’ broader potential impacts.

“Budgets are moral documents,” the Rev. Jill Saxby, executive director of the Maine Council of Churches, said at the outside rally, flanked by protest signs. “Budgets are the choices we make about how to take care of each other.”

Rich Livingston, a member of AARP Maine’s executive council, recounted the story of a local couple who pulled their mattress into the kitchen to sleep near the heat of their stove.

“Many older Mainers rely on every dime, every penny to get them through each month,” he said.

The proposal would slash contributions to programs that help low-income seniors pay for prescription drugs and Medicaid premiums.

LePage has said his plan makes tough choices to rein in skyrocketing MaineCare enrollment and tackle the reality of dwindling federal reimbursements for the program. He has called for tightening eligibility requirements, eliminating services and repealing coverage entirely for thousands of recipients to bring MaineCare, the state’s version of the federal Medicaid program, closer to national averages.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said at the hearing’s commencement that the administration recognizes the cuts will be painful.

“This is an extremely difficult day for all of us,” she said.

Testimony was expected to continue Thursday and Friday.

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