Health advocates are decrying proposed funding cuts in Gov. Paul LePage’s two-year budget that would “decimate Maine’s public health system,” including programs aimed at reducing smoking and staffing at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
LePage’s budget “drastically” reduces funding for the state’s tobacco program and “all but eliminates” the Healthy Maine Partnerships, coalitions that address tobacco and other health problems in the community, the Maine Public Health Association said in a news release late Wednesday.
Although the group is still analyzing the details of the budget proposal, “the Maine Public Health Association and our partners are deeply concerned about the grave consequences proposed cuts will have on the health and safety of Maine children, families and elders,” said Executive Director Tina Pettingill.
Maine’s anti-smoking program — funded by the 1998 landmark tobacco settlement agreement with major cigarette makers — has ranked among the most successful nationally. Maine reduced cigarette smoking rates among high school students by 67 percent from 1997 to 2013, “saving thousands of lives and millions per year from our health care budget,” the release states.
But while Maine outperforms most other states, it has failed to fully invest in helping smokers quit and preventing children from picking up the habit, a 2014 American Lung Association report found.
“As children grow into adolescents and young adults they become the main target for the tobacco industry and these programs immunize them against these efforts during these crucial years,” said Becky Smith, director of government relations for the American Heart Association in Maine.
Maine funds its anti-smoking program, overseen by Maine CDC, and the Healthy Maine Partnerships with the tobacco settlement money and a tax on tobacco products. LePage’s budget redirects $10 million of those funds to support other health initiatives, including maintaining reimbursement rates for primary care providers and a program to better coordinate treatment for Medicaid patients who often rely on emergency care, which has reduced monthly costs for those patients by 29 percent, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
Such efforts will improve the health of Mainers, LePage said in his budget proposal.
“The DHHS budget proposal is continuing to prioritize limited resources in the best interests of the people of Maine,” DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in a statement. “The tobacco settlement funds must be evaluated for their effectiveness in meeting that goal just like any other dollar that is spent by state government. The governor’s proposal is seeking to invest in primary care to support prevention services and to fund better chronic disease management services, including individuals with tobacco-related illnesses.”
About $2 million of the funds were pulled from a program that provides free vaccines for uninsured or underinsured adults. In the face of surpluses, the program has given vaccines away to any Maine resident regardless of insurance status, “which amounts to a subsidy of large, private insurers,” DHHS spokesman David Sorensen said in an email.
The proposal also would eliminate nearly 40 positions in the Maine CDC, or 11 percent of its workforce, the release states. Those positions are already vacant, Sorensen said.
The state and deputy state epidemiologist positions remain vacant, as do several other epidemiologist positions and at least a quarter of public health nursing positions, the release states. Epidemiologists are tasked with preventing the spread of infectious diseases, tracking their causes and effect on the population, and responding to outbreaks.
Maine CDC and its partners are critical to responding to public health emergencies, as the state witnessed during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009, the association said.
The agency’s public health staffing faced criticism last year during the state’s response to the return of Kaci Hickox, the Maine nurse who defied quarantine after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone.
“We look forward to working with our legislators to prevent these cuts and keeping Mainers healthy and safe now and into the future,” Pettingill said.