Portland mayor: DHHS budget cuts are ‘penny wise, pound foolish’

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan Buy Photo
Posted May 14, 2012, at 6:08 p.m.
Last modified May 15, 2012, at 9:06 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Cutting funding for programs that promote health and prevent disease to balance the state’s books will only cost Maine more in the long run, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said Monday.

Brennan spoke out a day before lawmakers are set to reconvene in Augusta to consider a plan to close an $83 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services by slashing spending on Medicaid and other health programs, while providing some tax cuts.

The plan was approved, along party lines, by the Appropriations Committee last week. It now will be up for votes in the House and Senate.

These cuts follow an earlier round of DHHS cuts last month, which dropped Medicaid coverage for 12,000 beneficiaries in the state.

Brennan targeted Republicans’ plan to divert $11 million from the Fund for a Healthy Maine to help close the budget gap. The fund allocates money from the landmark 1998 tobacco settlement for smoking and substance abuse prevention programs and a variety of health initiatives.

The fund’s other source of money, $2.5 million from slot machine revenue at Hollywood Casino in Bangor, would be cut entirely. The funding was originally earmarked to help the elderly pay for prescription drugs under the 2003 ballot referendum on the racino.

In all, the cuts amount to about 20 percent of the Fund for a Healthy Maine’s typical annual allotment.

Portland will lose at least $250,000 for several programs as a result of the Fund for a Healthy Maine cuts, according to Brennan’s office.

“As a legislator, I was proud to be a part of the effort to invest the monies coming from the tobacco settlement into programs that would prevent disease and help Mainers live healthy and active lives, and as mayor, I see the direct benefit of these investments in our community,” Brennan said in a press release. “This simple fact of the matter is that the old adage penny wise and pound foolish applies to these cuts.”

Brennan cited a 2008 report that found for every dollar Maine invests in prevention efforts, the state could save $7.50 in health costs within five years, the highest return on investment of any state in the country.

On average, health expenses related to tobacco and obesity cost each Maine household approximately $2,523 each year, Brennan said.

Under the budget proposal, two of the city’s six school-based health centers, which together offer primary care to more than 3,500 students, would be closed. Community coalitions that focus on preventing tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke, as well as promoting physical activity and nutrition, would take a $185,000 hit. The Fund for a Healthy Maine cuts would also force a home visitation program that educates new parents about children’s health and developmental needs to scale back, Brennan said.

While prevention programs are beneficial, the state must make tough choices to preserve crucial services for children, the elderly and people with disabilities, said Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage.

The state’s home visitation program will continue to receive $30 million in federal funding over the next four years, while two-thirds of the Healthy Maine Partnerships public health program will remain intact, she said.

“This budget is about setting priorities and making structural changes that result in ongoing savings and also protect the safety net for Maine’s most vulnerable,” she said.

Rallies opposing the budget cuts were planned Tuesday at Bangor City Hall and at the State House in Augusta.

A number of programs that the Fund for a Healthy Maine supports also receive state and federal monies.

Roughly a third of the fund’s money goes toward smoking cessation and anti-obesity programs. Child care and development initiatives, such as Head Start, account for another significant chunk, along with prescription drug programs.

Maine is considered a leader in preserving its tobacco settlement funds to crack down on smoking. The state spent $9.4 million in fiscal year 2012 on anti-tobacco programs, about half what federal health officials recommend, but nonetheless ranking Maine sixth in the country in a November report.

Other states have raided their tobacco settlement funds to balance budgets and fund special projects. Fifteen states used the money to sell bonds, giving up their rights to future payments.

Since 2000, Maine has shifted more than $90 million from the Fund for a Healthy Maine to the general fund. More than half of that sum, about $53 million, was in the 2002-03 budget year.

“Since the King administration, these are the first big program cuts,” said Becky Smith, chief policy officer for the Maine Public Health Association.

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