Health committee’s opposition to LePage cuts would add $7.6M to budget hole

Gov. Paul LePage
Linda Coan O'Kresik
Gov. Paul LePage
Posted Feb. 01, 2013, at 3:36 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The legislative committee that oversees Maine’s health and human services programs Friday came out against cuts to child adoption subsidies, prescription drug aid for seniors, rural hospital reimbursement rates, substance abuse treatment and other reductions proposed by Gov. Paul LePage to fill a $112 million hole in the current year’s budget.

And while the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee also opposed a handful of new spending initiatives in LePage’s budget proposal, the committee’s actions would add about $7.6 million to the budget gap if they’re allowed to stand, according to the Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review. LePage is proposing the supplemental budget to account for flagging tax revenue collections and cost overruns in the state’s Medicaid program.

The Health and Human Services Committee on Friday shared its recommendations with the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, which will soon have to recommend a final budget proposal to the full Legislature.

Most of the Health and Human Services Committee’s recommendations against LePage’s proposed cuts were the result of party-line votes in which majority Democrats opposed the reductions and the panel’s Republican members voted to support them.

“If there was a relationship to direct services, the majority felt that those needed to be continued,” Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, the panel’s House chairman, told Appropriations Committee members.

The divide among the panel’s Democratic and Republican members could foreshadow future budget battles as lawmakers start work on LePage’s much larger budget proposal for the next two-year budget cycle.

“We recognize that when it comes to the financial health of our state at this time that we’re in a pickle, and we need to find a substantial amount of money to fill a substantial hole between now and June 30,” said Rep. Deborah Sanderson of Chelsea, the ranking Republican on the Health and Human Services Committee. “The curtailments on these [services], we understand, as painful as they were, were targeted but temporary.”

The reductions opposed by the panel’s Democrats would:

• lower reimbursement rates for the state’s 16 Critical Access Hospitals, which are hospitals in rural areas that provide 24-hour emergency care.

• cut about 5 percent of remaining state contract funds from providers that serve people with substance abuse problems and mental illness.

• cut $1.4 million from an account that provides subsidies to about 850 families that adopt children from state care and don’t qualify for a federal subsidy.

• eliminate state funding for a program that pays a deductible for low-income residents before they become eligible for Medicaid services.

In addition, Democrats on the Health and Human Services panel opposed proposals in LePage’s budget proposal to cap annual general assistance payments to municipalities at $10.1 million and to transfer $14 million in Oxford Casino revenues earmarked for public schools to the state general fund.

They also opposed about $28.4 million in new spending the LePage administration said it needed to upgrade the state’s Medicaid billing systems to comply with federal requirements.

Democrats said Friday that many of the service cuts would simply shift costs to hospital emergency rooms and other expensive venues. And they said they weren’t satisfied by answers from Department of Health and Human Services staff about the cuts’ impact.

“If you take the services away, the problems don’t go away,” said Rep. Peter Stuckey, D-Portland. “They just reappear in less appropriate, more expensive venues where the outcomes aren’t as good. I didn’t get a sense that the consequences had been well thought through.”

Republicans accused their Democratic colleagues of backing away from tough budget choices.

“Yeah, there are tough choices to make, but sometimes you have to make them,” said Rep. Kathleen Chase, R-Wells. “This is the department where all of the money seems to be sucked right into the black hole.”

And Republicans said the recommendation to block spending on Medicaid billing system upgrades would simply push that spending into the budget year, which starts July 1.

“I’m concerned that if we don’t get this funding in right now to secure these contracts, that when we get to the point where we have to go live, that we might find ourselves in a pickle,” Sanderson said.

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