Saturday, March 8, 2014
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.
The shift takes money away from programs such as oral and dental health, bone marrow screening, substance abuse services and family planning.
Kate Brogan, vice president for public affairs for the Family Planning Association of Maine, said the group is poised to lose more than $400,000 a year, which is about a third of its state funding. They also get about $3 million in federal funds.
The association runs clinics in Augusta and in the midcoast, and provides funding for other health care centers across the state. In addition to contraceptives, it provides cancer screenings, diabetes tests and detection of heart disease, she said. The centers serve about 28,000 women, men and teenagers each year.
"For so many women, the only health care they get is at family planning centers," she said.
A $400,000 funding cut would mean clinics would have to close, and those that do remain would have to cut hours, she said. The association is meeting next week to discuss its options should the budget pass as proposed.
Fitzgerald, who said she is not normally politically active, has called some of her local legislators to try to convince them of the importance of her job. Starting March 7, lawmakers will begin consideration of the DHHS portion of the budget.
The state caseworkers in Child Protective Services focus on abuse that occurs in a child's home, Fitzgerald said. She and her co-workers -- known as "out of home investigators" -- are funded by the tobacco settlement money to look into allegations of child abuse or neglect in foster homes, group homes, or day care centers.
The current five-person unit travels the state to interview children, staff, therapists and others to determine if an allegation is true. Fitzgerald, who lives in Skowhegan, often travels to Aroostook and Washington counties.
They investigate possible sexual abuse in foster homes. They investigate when there's a child death in a foster home. They look into medical neglect if a teacher or someone else expresses a concern. On occasion, they go to hospitals or nursing homes if a child happens to be placed there.
Much of what they do can't be done over the phone.
"We need to go into the home," Fitzgerald said. "I've seen day cares with paint cans sitting beside wood stoves."
Fitzgerald, 49, has a bachelor's degree in social work from the University of New Hampshire and is a licensed social worker. She is paid about $38,000 a year, she said.
"I'm not going to go down without a fight," she said. "I'll accept whatever they dish out to me. I think it's worth fighting for."
MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: