Budget panel zeroes in on keeping DHHS afloat

Posted Feb. 03, 2012, at 4:24 p.m.
Patrick S. Flood
Patrick S. Flood

AUGUSTA, Maine — Some of the most controversial cuts Gov. Paul LePage has proposed for the Department of Health and Human Services will be put on the back burner so lawmakers can focus on keeping the agency solvent, a leading Senate legislator said Friday.

In the next day or two, the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee will find savings to prevent DHHS from running out of money in April, said co-chair Rep. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop. Over the next month, the panel will tackle longer-term fixes to the department’s $221 million budget gap, he said.

“We have polarizing issues that we’re trying to address simultaneously,” he told fellow members of the budget-writing committee Friday afternoon. “One is an immediate cash flow problem and the second being solutions that are very long-term in nature and require, in many cases, quite some time to implement.”

The panel has identified $140 million in savings for this fiscal year by combining parts of the governor’s proposal with cuts outlined by a streamlining task force last fall, Flood said. Those savings will allow DHHS to pay its bills through June.

The remaining $80 million in red ink for the next fiscal year will be addressed in a separate bill later in the session, he said.

A few of the governor’s more polarizing cuts, such as a call to drop MaineCare coverage for childless adults, will take longer to negotiate, Flood said.

“I wouldn’t want to leave anyone with the belief that those [reductions] are easy, and we hope that they’re achievable in this effort to find resolution,” he said.

The committee has worked well together on its review of the budget, Flood said. Any delay on final voting indicates the difficulty of the task at hand, not foot-dragging by either party, he said.

The Appropriations Committee has been working on a proposal for several weeks, and on Thursday presented LePage with a compromise budget plan. A spokeswoman for the governor said Friday that LePage won’t weigh in on the proposal until it’s finalized.

The governor chastised Democrats on Thursday for “stalling” on his proposal. His plan, released last December, would cut $221 million in MaineCare spending over the next year and a half by tightening eligibility guidelines, eliminating services and repealing coverage for an estimated 65,000 recipients.

At least one major item — a plan to cut about $60 million from some nursing and group homes — has been rejected.

BDN reporter Eric Russell contributed to this report.

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