Portland mayor decries proposed DHHS cuts

Posted Jan. 30, 2012, at 2:22 p.m.
Michael Brennan
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PORTLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s attempt to balance the state’s books by overhauling MaineCare unfairly passes the buck to local governments, hospitals and social service agencies, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said Monday.

LePage’s plan eliminates $2 million from city programs and includes $20 million in cuts to Portland hospitals, Brennan said at his first news conference since taking office in December.

The governor has proposed dropping 65,000 people from MaineCare coverage to close an estimated $221 million shortfall at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Brennan spoke at the entrance to Mercy Hospital’s emergency room, surrounded by representatives from Portland business, social service and nonprofit groups.

“If in fact the governor’s proposal goes forward, this, the emergency room, will become the health care for [MaineCare recipients] and it will have dire consequences not only in the city of Portland, but ripple effects throughout the state,” the mayor said.

Brennan, a Democrat and onetime Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, urged lawmakers to look beyond the DHHS shortfall to the wider state budget to find savings. The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee meets today and throughout the week to continue deliberations on the DHHS budget.

On a number of occasions over the past decade, legislators have closed significant budget gaps by taking a more comprehensive approach, Brennan said.

“I do think it’s somewhat of a manufactured crisis,” Brennan said. “I think the time frame is unrealistic and again I’m hopeful that the Legislature will step back and take a more prudent view of the whole budget.”

LePage has said MaineCare, the state’s version of the federal Medicaid program, will run out of money in early April without his cuts. His plan tightens eligibility requirements and cuts services to close the DHHS shortfall over the next year and a half.

Brennan said he objected to LePage’s tactic of pitting schools against health care for Maine residents. LePage on Friday repeated a threat to siphon funding from public schools to keep nursing homes open if legislators fail to approve his proposal.

“We will not be closing schools in Portland,” Brennan said.

The mayor also said he plans to contact Maine’s congressional delegation to voice his opposition to the administration’s plan to seek an exemption for $37 million of proposed cuts that violate the federal Affordable Care Act.

LePage’s plan would cripple two city-run health clinics that serve the homeless and low-income, leave hundreds of families without needed housing and employment assistance and force five of six school-based health centers to close, Brennan said. The proposal puts thousands of jobs at risk across the state, as well, he said.

“When we start talking about making these massive cuts, we are talking not about preserving the safety net, we’re talking about shredding the safety net,” he said.

Mercy Hospital will lose $6 million under the plan, and likely close its substance abuse treatment center in Westbrook, according to President and CEO Eileen Skinner.

“These are nuclear options, if you will, that will dramatically affect our community,” she said.

Brennan said the state could find savings by better coordinating MaineCare patients’ health services and by requiring pre-authorization for some prescription medications.

The mayor was joined by Westbrook Mayor Colleen Hilton, who is also an employee of Mercy Health System of Maine, and representatives from the Portland Regional Chamber, Catholic Charities, Preble Street and the United Way of Greater Portland.

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