February 24, 2011

State worker puts human face on cuts

Lisa Fitzgerald's job will be eliminated if Gov. Paul LePage's budget is passed as proposed.

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA - Lisa Fitzgerald is one of five state workers who investigate child abuse and neglect in foster homes, day cares, and group homes.

A state employee for 24 years, Fitzgerald and two co-workers were notified Feb. 11 that their jobs will be eliminated if the state budget is passed as proposed.

"I had no idea it was coming," she said. "No idea whatsoever."

The cuts are the result of a shift of nearly $18 million from the Fund for a Healthy Maine to the state Medicaid fund. The Fund for a Healthy Maine -- which is projected to have $53.6 million in revenue available in 2012 -- is supported by money paid to the state from tobacco companies as part of a 1999 settlement.

Fitzgerald works in a five-person unit that will be reduced to two people if the budget is approved. As it is now, each person handles about 50 cases a year, for a total of 250, she said.

"My hope is by being vocal, maybe I can bring the awareness out there of what we actually do," she said.

"Parents are counting on us to protect their kids. We license these people. They count on our opinion that their children are going to be safe in these places."

Gov. Paul LePage is eliminating 81 state positions as part of his $6.1 billion two-year budget. Of those, only 12 are filled.

In addition to Fitzgerald and her two co-workers, an office associate in the Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services within the Department of Health and Human Services will lose her job. Also, a person who works in DHHS' Substance Abuse Services and Mental Health offices will be out of a job.

The budget eliminates three jobs in the state Fire Marshal's Office for workers who inspect child care facilities. One position is in the drug court program, and another is a school nurse consultant in DHHS. Two jobs come from the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.

Administration officials say shifting money from the Fund for a Healthy Maine to Medicaid will mean more federal money for the state, because it will draw down a 2-to-1 match in funding. That money is needed to keep up with increasing demand for DHHS services, said Commissioner Mary Mayhew.

Also, the state was prevented from making other kinds of changes to state welfare programs by the new federal health law, which forced it to look for money from the Fund for a Healthy Maine, Mayhew said.

"We had very difficult choices given the restrictions by the federal government," she said. "There is funding in the Medicaid program that is focused on prevention."

Overall, the budget proposes to increase spending in Medicaid by $227 million, part of which is necessary because of increased demand and the loss of temporary federal funds, Mayhew said. Nearly 20,000 new people have enrolled since June 2009, she said.

The shift in money from the Fund for a Healthy Maine represents a major policy change from past administrations, said Ed Miller, president of the American Lung Association of Maine. In the past, Maine has been one of the few states that didn't regularly raid the fund to balance the budget, he said.

"It would be a shame to take away the fund we have in Maine to prevent disease and use it to pay for disease after it occurs," he said.

The budget also changes language that was seen as protecting the fund. State law required that money be used to "supplement, not supplant" funds for health prevention. The LePage proposal strikes that language.

"It opens the door for the Fund for a Healthy Maine to be a second rainy day fund where money can be taken to fill budget holes," Miller said.

(Continued on page 2)

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