As a possible state government shutdown appears more likely if the Legislature fails to reach a budget compromise that two-thirds of lawmakers will support by 11:59 p.m. Friday and that Gov. Paul LePage will agree to sign, those who care for elderly Mainers fear they will get caught in a worst-case scenario.
“There could be a devastating impact,” said Jessica Maurer, executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging. “We just don’t know what will be considered ‘essential services’ and the most troubling would be the stopping of benefits that keep people alive.’”
LePage has the authority to determine which state personnel will continue to work during a shutdown by identifying them as “emergency” or “non-emergency.”
On Thursday a lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court — on behalf of seven defendants receiving state aid — asks a federal judge to order LePage’s administration to continue paying benefits to poor Mainers if there is a shutdown.
The lawsuit brought against LePage and Acting DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton asks the federal court to order that the DHHS continue to receive applications, process applications and maintain the issuance of benefits and services during any state shutdown.
Many of the state-funded, reimbursed or administered services for older Mainers fall under the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and DHHS spokesperson Samantha Edwards referred all media questions to the office of the governor.
“The governor is going to make every attempt to ensure our most vulnerable remain safe during the event of a shutdown,” Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary, said in an email response on Tuesday. “Democrats’ attempt to ensure panic is despicable and they ought to be ashamed of their unwillingness to compromise on a budget that has been in their hands for six months.”
Maine’s five Area Agencies on Aging — Aroostook Area Agency on Aging, Eastern Area Agency on Aging, Southern Maine Area Agency on Aging, SeniorPlus and Spectrum Generations — share in $1.5 million of state funding, according to Maurer, in addition to millions of federal dollars funneled through the state.
Those dollars fund Meals on Wheels, MaineCare reimbursements, adult day care centers, elder counseling, nutritional programs, educational programs and transportation services across the state, among other things.
“The [Area Agencies on Aging] are really the first places older adults turn when they can’t access the services they need,” Maurer said. “And the clock is ticking now on whether or not we can stay open.”
At the core, she said, are funds the programs need to operate, but which can only be released by the state.
As it is, Maurer said, the state is already four months behind in releasing federal funds encumbered for the Area Agencies on Aging.
“They’ve been operating four months without payments,” she said. “There is typically a two- to three-month lag time [in payments] but this is the worst and longest it has ever been.”
The possibility those payments could be delayed even further if the state offices responsible for issuing those payments shuts down is cause for concern, Maurer said, especially if a shutdown drags out for weeks.
“Should we be worried?” she said. “Yes, we should be worried.”
For now, the area agencies on aging are relying heavily on limited cash-on-hand and lines of credit, neither of which are intended to be primary funding sources.
“It really is a question of cash flow,” said Laurence Gross, CEO of Southern Maine Area Agency on Aging. “If nobody is at the state offices processing payments that come down from the [federal government] to the state or from the state down to the local provider agencies, nobody has the money to pay staff or providers and that is a big concern.”
The governor and Legislature have until Friday to hammer out a compromise budget. LePage has threatened to veto any budget which does not meet his demands, though veto threats largely are irrelevant because the state budget needs two-thirds support in both chambers to go into effect by Saturday. That’s the same threshold the Legislature would need to overturn a gubernatorial veto.
He can also hold the budget for up to 10 days under the Maine Constitution until acting on it, which could trigger a shutdown no matter what the Legislature does.
“Mainers of all ages — including seniors — will spend this week wondering if next week they will be able to afford groceries, prescription drugs, doctors’ appointments, rent or mortgage payments and other bills that won’t wait for a state shutdown to resolve,” said Amy Gallant, AARP Maine Advocacy director. “State retirement, pensions and vital programs such as Medicare Savings and Drugs for the Elderly as well as SNAP must be deemed essential in the event of a shutdown.”
Gross said he and his fellow agency CEOs held a conference call last week to discuss coordinated responses in the event of a shutdown.
“Most of us have the feeling that what we do are deemed ‘essential services’ by the governor,” he said. “And we are in a place we can continue to operate through the month of July [but] if there is a shutdown that extends beyond that, we would have to look at what we consider essential services and what we could afford to provide.”
In the worst case, Gross said, that could include temporarily closing down offices.
Maurer said if a shutdown does hit the agencies, there would also likely be increased demands on area food banks and communities to step in and fill basic needs of the elderly.
Maine has the oldest median age in the nation with 25 percent of the state over 60, Maurer said. Many elderly who live in assisted living and nursing home facilities rely on MaineCare to pay for their room and board with state and federal funds reimbursements.
“Any delay in the state’s processing those reimbursements will cause problems,” Maurer said. “There will be issues with bottom lines [and] these care facilities operate so close to the bone as it is due to underfunding it’s a real problem.”
Gross agreed, saying many businesses that provide home support personnel to the elderly in Maine rely on those state funding reimbursements to meet operating and payroll expenses.
“If the state does shut down and reimbursements are cut off many of these businesses would have to lay off staff,” he said. “That could really put some of the elderly who rely on them at risk.”
For now, Maurer said the clock is ticking and there is hope, even in the event of a shutdown those funds that support Maine’s elderly will continue to flow.
But if not, Gross warns the consequences can be dire.
“It’s really concerning that there are people who don’t appear to understand the gravity of this,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of the inconvenience a shutdown could cause, but that for a lot of people this could really be a matter of life and death.”