A battle of wills and legislative powers took the spotlight Sunday, stirring up a political fire at a time when legislators and Gov. Paul LePage’s administration should instead be focused on fixing the state budget crisis and preventing future cost overruns at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
In a special legislative meeting on Sunday, Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, held firm and declined to let LePage address the committee when he sat in front of the mic. The panel had finished its work; LePage had not been scheduled to speak; and Hill said she would be happy to hear his concerns outside of the committee. LePage escalated the tension when he continued to push Hill to let him talk and said the people of Maine were “being played for patsies.”
The pushback politicized and personalized a process that benefits far more from rationality. What is needed is a budget to ensure DHHS gets through the rest of the fiscal year, which ends June 30, and an analysis of how revenue forecasts and budget structures for the department can be improved. If lawmakers are going to approve an emergency budget package for DHHS, they should fully understand the factors that contributed to the current funding gap and what is being done to prevent them from happening again.
LePage has not helped by creating an air of a crisis. The administration rolled out a package of budget proposal changes on May 8 that included $35 million more for DHHS. And the Office of Fiscal and Program Review provided information about Medicaid spending and the likely shortfall in April. But the LePage administration didn’t send notice to legislative leaders until Friday that DHHS needs the funding by May 28. The slowness in announcing a deadline increases pressure on lawmakers and makes it more difficult for them to potentially address matters that led to the department’s funding gap.
That doesn’t mean they can’t still do so. According to information provided by the department, unrealized revenues for DHHS account for $17 million of the $35 million request, and $16 million of the gap can be attributed to changes in MaineCare use. Nearly 70 percent of all people receiving MaineCare used services in fiscal year 2013, compared with 65 percent in fiscal year 2012. Legislators should dig into more details of what contributed to the need for greater funding. They should learn when the problems became clear to DHHS officials and whether they could have been discussed and acted on earlier to allow more time to find the best solutions.
In fairness, some of DHHS’ cost variables are unpredictable, as the agency becomes responsible for paying for health care services as people use them. But when the department needs one supplemental budget after another to pay its bills, the public deserves an accounting of where estimates went wrong and whether different decisions should have been made. Lawmakers can use these latest money troubles to understand how the department can improve, to reduce the likelihood of another funding gap soon in the future.