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Maine legislators clash over GOP's proposed DHHS cuts

Maine Republican legislators unveiled a fiscal year 2013 social services budget that seeks to end "an explosive, irresponsible and unaffordable expansion of MaineCare to tens of thousands of people who would not qualify for Medicaid coverage in other states," according to Republican Senate President Kevin L. Raye.
Democrats called the proposal, passed by a vote of 8-5 from the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, "a dangerous and irresponsible budget proposal that will hurt Maine's economy, vulnerable seniors and children, and working families, while giving away additional unfunded tax cuts."5-11-health-care-main
"The Republicans are trying to discount how hurtful these cuts will be to thousands of Maine families," said Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the lead House Democrat on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee. "Their proposal removes access to health care and services for thousands of children and seniors, while adding to unfunded tax cuts. The costs will fall straight on property taxpayers, private insurance holders, and hospitals."
Raye unveiled the budget with a statement describing a partisan divide in Augusta.
"Against all odds, with the patient and deliberative approach taken by the Senate and House Chairs of the Appropriations Committee, and leadership in both the Senate and House, we kept the lines of communications open and worked painstakingly with our Democratic counterparts to reach bipartisan consensus on the biennial budget and four subsequent supplemental budgets," Raye said. "In this final budget, however, minority members of the Appropriations Committee made it clear they are unwilling to accept the changes necessary for us to honor our obligation to fix a broken and unsustainable MaineCare program. That refusal means that progress depends on action by the Republican majority."
The Republican budget plan makes approximately $100 million in "structural changes," Raye said, and "prioritizes MaineCare spending to ensure it is sustainable into the future."
Democrats said the plan reduces access to medicine and medical care for more than 5,649 seniors, earning between $14,000 to $19,000 per year; and cuts funding for early childhood education programs, including HeadStart, that help working parents continue working.
Maine Equal Justice Partners, a legal aid and advocacy organization for low-income Mainers, said that the consequences of the budget released Thursday by Republican lawmakers "would have devastating effects on families in every community in Maine."
According to a spreadsheet provided by Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, the LePage proposal would:
• Eliminate optional Medicaid coverage for 19- and 20-year-olds, saving $5.8 million in emergency funding and $4 million in nonemergency funding.
• Eliminate the Drugs for the Elderly Program and the Medicare Savings Program under the Fund for a Healthy Maine, for a savings of $11.6 million in emergency funding and $7.9 million in nonemergency funding.
• Reduce funding for Head Start, for a general fund savings of $2.4 million in emergency funding and $1.7 million in nonemergency funding.
Ana Hicks, a senior policy analyst with Maine Equal Justice Partners, said cuts to Head Start "will mean that young children begin school already behind."
"Cuts to the Drugs for the Elderly Program and the Medicare Savings Program will mean seniors and people with disabilities lose access to medicine and might not be able to afford their health care expenses," Hicks said. "And cuts to MaineCare mean that working families and young adults will be cut off from health insurance that helps them to work and see them through illness."
But in defending the Department of Health and Human Services reductions, Raye said MaineCare has grown from 12.4 percent of the state budget in 1998 to 21 percent of the state budget today.
"When you combine state and federal dollars, Medicaid alone represents 32 percent of the state budget and DHHS overall accounts for 45 percent of all spending in the state budget," he said.
"Because we understand the importance of early childhood development, (the budget proposal) rejects the proposal to eliminate state funding for Head Start," Raye added "The modest 6 percent reduction in the program recognizes that more Maine children are being served by K-4 programs in public schools — for which we increased funding by $63 million this biennium. Thus, Maine will remain one of the few states that contribute state funds as match for Head Start, a federal program slated to receive $32 million in federal funds. Other existing contributions and even volunteer hours can be used for match to make up for the reduction."
Democrats said Republican legislators "accepted many of Gov. Paul LePage's controversial proposals that were widely rebuffed by the public during hearings last year."
"Nothing about this budget improves Maine. Instead, it will burden low income seniors, children, and families struggling to make ends meet," said Democratic Sen. Dawn Hill of York who serves on the Appropriations Committee. "It ignores reality and puts our economy and people's lives in jeopardy."
Raye said the state needs to get a handle on its Medicaid spending.
"By 2009, Maine's per capita Medicaid cost was $1,895 per person, compared to an average of just $1,187 in other states," he said. "Mainers cannot afford costs that are 60 percent above the national average."
The proposed DHHS budget, Raye noted, “honors an agreement” on general assistance funding, which legislators set at an 85 percent reimbursement rate by the state.
During the general assistance debate, Gov. LePage warned that he wouldn’t sign legislation that “largely ignores welfare reform,” taking aim at a legislative proposal to balance the state budget through June 30, 2013, which stopped short of his proposed 50 percent cap to general assistance funding for towns and cities.
LePage line-item vetoed two sections of the legislation, state funding for municipal general assistance and a disproportionate share payment to hospitals and psychiatric facilities.
Republicans in the Maine Legislature declined to return to session early to vote on an override of the governor’s line-item vetoes.
Next week, legislators are scheduled to reconvene.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan has said under the governor’s proposal, Portland would have lost $2.2 million but under the revised legislative plan the city stands to lose roughly $300,000 in general assistance funding.

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