Lingering questions cloud DHHS budget cut picture

Posted Jan. 06, 2012, at 8:16 p.m.
Richard Rosen
Richard Rosen

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers expect to learn more next week about the reasons for a budget shortfall at the Department of Health and Human Services, but they may not get final answers to lingering questions about the size and nature of the gap.

After abruptly canceling a meeting scheduled for Friday, the Legislature’s budget-writing committee is expected to reconvene early next week to dig into Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to trim $220 million from the DHHS budget by overhauling MaineCare. A date for the meeting has not yet been set.

Lawmakers said Friday’s meeting was called off after it became clear that officials from DHHS and an independent office reviewing the department’s budget would not be ready to answer questions.

The nonpartisan Office of Fiscal and Program Review has been working with DHHS to confirm the size of the shortfall and determine how much of the red ink is due to one-time costs versus ongoing expenditures. Questions remain on both issues, though DHHS staff have largely addressed why the state is paying more for some MaineCare services than originally projected, according to Grant Pennoyer, the office’s director. Some of the reasons lie with miscalculated federal match rates for MaineCare recipients who also get Medicare benefits.

Friday’s meeting was intended to put the question of the shortfall’s exact size to rest, he said.

“We weren’t necessarily prepared to do that on Friday,” Pennoyer said.

DHHS staff made a presentation to the Office of Fiscal and Program Review, but the office needed more answers to move forward with its independent review, he said. “They, in a couple of days, pulled together an amazing amount of data,” Pennoyer said.

Excellent progress has been made on nailing down MaineCare spending to date, and the next step will be using that information to project costs for fiscal year 2013, he said. LePage’s proposal seeks to close a $120 million shortfall in this fiscal year and a projected $100 million gap next year.

Pennoyer said the $120 million estimate is in line with spending trends, but he doesn’t have much confidence yet in confirming the $100 million figure.

“I think there will still be some questions there” next week, he said. The office must first get a handle on which expenditures are one-time costs that won’t resurface in the 2013 budget, Pennoyer said.

MaineCare is the state’s version of the federal Medicaid health insurance program for the poor.

The Appropriations Committee canceled its Friday meeting to allow members more time to sort through the volumes of information they have received in recent days regarding the MaineCare proposal’s more than 30 initiatives, according to co-chairman Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport. “It’s probably the accumulation of that [information] on our end” that led to the meeting’s delay, he said.

Democrats were none too pleased to see the meeting called off.

“We are now three weeks into the budget process and we still don’t have the answers we need to move forward,” Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said in a press release. “The most important thing is that we work to get the figures right and assess which costs are ongoing and which ones are on one-time. It is irresponsible to rush to pass this harmful proposal. ”

The timing of deliberations is at the forefront of lawmakers’ minds. Members of the Appropriations Committee have said recently they need more information from the department before continuing deliberations on the proposed cuts. But a looming deadline remains.

During the second session of a Maine Legislature, a two-thirds majority of lawmakers needs to approve a bill in order for it to be enacted immediately. If a bill passes with only a simple majority, it doesn’t go into effect until 90 days after passage.

The governor has said that money for MaineCare will run out April 1, which would be before the 90 days are up.

The Appropriations Committee has had since November to review the DHHS budget figures, said Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for the governor. “The information has been accessible to legislators all along,” she said. “The [DHHS] commissioner has been very transparent and accommodating.”

LePage’s sweeping proposal calls for tightening eligibility requirements, eliminating services and repealing coverage entirely for thousands of MaineCare recipients to bring Maine’s program closer to national averages. An estimated 65,000 Mainers are slated to lose heath coverage under the proposal.

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