BANGOR, Maine — Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew took a break from Augusta on Thursday to defend controversial cuts to her agency’s budget in Bangor.
Mayhew has spent many hours in recent days before lawmakers, explaining Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to close an estimated $220 million shortfall in the DHHS budget by overhauling MaineCare. On Thursday, attendees at a breakfast event at Husson University quizzed Mayhew on many of the cuts also drawing attention in Augusta.
“As I’ve said about so many of the proposals that we have within the supplemental budget, these are painful decisions; there are consequences,” Mayhew said.
One audience member asked if a hotly contested plan to eliminate funding for facilities that serve the elderly, the mentally and physically disabled and patients of substance abuse treatment programs was now “off the table.” Both Republicans and Democrats have pledged to oppose the cut to private nonmedical institutions, which would save $60 million.
“For now, as part of the budget negotiations, their intent is to restore [the money] and seek alternate funding,” Mayhew said.
LePage has set aside $40 million for the state’s reserve, or Rainy Day, fund that lawmakers could use to fund PNMIs, she said. Democrats have accused the governor of using the PNMI proposal as a “bargaining chip in budget negotiations.”
The proposal’s call to slash $30 million from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which allocates money from the landmark 1998 tobacco settlement for smoking and substance abuse prevention programs and a variety of health initiatives, has met less resistance. Members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, voting along party lines this week, gave preliminary approval to the cut, and also supported diverting $2.4 million from the Head Start program.
The panel’s recommendations were presented this afternoon to the Legislature’s budgetary committee.
Mayhew said she’s encouraged by the legislative action, anticipating that the budget-writing Appropriations Committee will vote on the MaineCare proposal as soon as next week after many days of deliberations.
LePage’s plan would drop 65,000 people from coverage, tighten eligibility requirements and cut services to bring MaineCare, the state’s version of the federal Medicaid program, closer to national averages for public health benefits.
“We are hopeful as [lawmakers] head into this weekend that they are able to really start looking at conducting some votes fairly soon,” she said.
The LePage administration has said lawmakers must take action by the end of January to implement the reforms before MaineCare runs out of money in early April.
Democrats, however, aren’t convinced that the shortfall estimates are accurate. A review of the DHHS budget, expected to wrap up this week, has yet to produce an independent estimate of the red ink.
In a letter to Democratic leaders Wednesday, Grant Pennoyer, head of the nonpartisan Office of Fiscal and Program review, said current spending trends would produce a shortfall in the range of the department’s $120 million estimate, assuming no changes in the second half of this year. For the next fiscal year, LePage anticipates another $100 million budget gap. Pennoyer wrote in the letter that his office currently lacks sufficient information to confirm that estimate, despite cooperation from DHHS.
“It is crystal clear that the governor’s budget doesn’t add up,” Senate Democratic Leader Barry Hobbins of Saco said in a press release. “It is frustrating that Democrats are ready to work on solving our state’s budget issues but we cannot talk about a solution if we don’t yet understand the problem. Rushing in to policy changes or program cuts without real numbers would be irresponsible.”
DHHS has provided lawmakers with plenty of financial information on the shortfall, Mayhew said Thursday after the event.
“We believe they absolutely have all of the financial analysis and data they need to understand the extent of this shortfall, and they truly need to act,” she said.