Thursday, April 17, 2014
AUGUSTA — Jean Greenleaf of Winthrop gets help from the state each month to pay for her prescription drugs. It's a benefit she will lose if spending cuts proposed by Gov. Paul LePage become reality.
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Through its MaineCare program, the state now covers a portion of the $600 monthly cost for drugs including insulin, which she needs for her diabetes. LePage is proposing to reduce or eliminate two programs that pay for prescription drugs as part of a plan to eliminate a projected $221 million budget deficit in the Department of Health and Human Services over the next 18 months.
While LePage's plan would end MaineCare coverage for 65,000 Mainers and hit nearly all age groups, advocates for the elderly say senior citizens in Maine will be especially hard hit if lawmakers approve the cuts.
"It would make times that are already tough much tougher," said Robyn Merrill, a policy analyst with Maine Equal Justice.
Greenleaf, 73, a widow who gets just over $1,100 a month in Social Security, makes a little extra money by working a few nights a week cleaning at the office of Maine Equal Justice, an advocacy group for the poor, elderly and disabled.
The group could not say exactly how much of the cost of drugs Greenleaf would have to pick up if the benefit were cut, but it estimated that it would be a significant portion.
"I've been awful worried about not being able to make it," said Greenleaf. "If they take it away, I don't know what I'll do."
Merrill has crunched the numbers in LePage's proposal and her estimates indicate:
• 5,000 to 6,000 low-income adults older than 62 and people who have disabilities would lose all of the money they now get for prescription drugs through the Drugs for the Elderly program.
• An estimated 6,000 people -- including senior citizens -- will have to find new places to live if the state closes residential homes and boarding homes now paid for by MaineCare funds.
For months, LePage has said Maine is too generous with its welfare benefits, offering coverage that far exceeds what's available in other states.
Maine spends about $1,900 per person on MaineCare, while the national average is $1,100, according to the LePage administration. Also, enrollment has grown significantly since 1998, when 154,000 individuals were covered. Today, enrollment is 361,000.
Stefanie Nadeau, director of the Office of MaineCare Services in the DHHS, said the state is working to roll back programs to federal standards. In some cases, Maine has extended benefits to people at 150 percent of the federal poverty level -- $16,335 a year for a single person -- when in most states, she said, the cut-off is 100 percent, $10,890 a year.
"We cannot sustain the growth in the MaineCare program that we have seen going back as far as a decade," she said. "It's unrealistic to think of us being able to fund things as they are today."
While the state is seeking to save money by cutting services, Merrill and John Hennessy of AARP Maine said some of the proposals would end up costing hospitals -- and people with private health insurance -- more money in the long run.
One example is the proposal to end funding for residential and boarding homes known as private nonmedical institutions. While they serve various groups of people, including those with severe mental illness, brain injuries and developmental disabilities, they also house the elderly, Hennessy said.
"There are thousands of frail, elderly people in these settings with nowhere to go," he said. "Nursing homes are more expensive."
In recent months, the federal government has raised questions about how Maine has handled the billing for the institutions and required some to reduce the number of beds.
While Hennessy and others knew there were problems with the billing, they did not expect the governor to propose closing all of them.
Nadeau said the state can't afford to continue paying for the services, particularly with the future of federal funding in doubt. The DHHS is looking into ways to help people transition out of the services, she said.
Another cut proposed by LePage would end coverage for services such as dental care, podiatry and physical therapy.
Hennessy said that would make it more costly for hospitals because people who could no longer get dental or podiatry care would end up going to emergency rooms. He said the phones at AARP have been "ringing off the hook" since LePage released his proposal Tuesday.
"This will be devastating to low-income Maine seniors," he said.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: