March 3, 2010

Caregivers supported by those they serve

Susan M. Cover

AUGUSTA — Mary Ellen Sawyer, a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy, told state lawmakers Tuesday that state budget cuts will mean a pay reduction for the personal care attendants who help her.

She thinks that's unfair.

Sawyer, who was the Maine Easter Seals poster child in 1955, worked for 20 years as a health professional. Her medical conditions worsened seven years ago and she now needs five to eight attendants to help her four times a day.

Proposed cuts in the state budget would mean a pay reduction for those attendants from $9 an hour to $8.10 an hour.

''Reducing attendant salaries to $8.10 is not a livable wage for anyone,'' she told members of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee. ''Reduced wages will make it very difficult for me to retain the personal attendants I have or hire new ones.''

Sawyer, of Auburn, was one of dozens of people, many of whom use wheelchairs, to testify at a public hearing on proposed cuts to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Gov. John Baldacci proposed the cuts as one way to make up for a $438 million state budget shortfall. Among the cuts are $937,500 in the long-term care homemaker program, $225,000 in home-based care for adults, $1.8 million in the Drugs for the Elderly Program and about $1 million in adult day services for the elderly.

The proposed cuts wouldn't just affect senior citizens.

Jeremy Libby of Levant, who has a spinal cord injury, said the program helped him finish college and get a graduate degree. He works full-time but needs some help from personal attendants.

''These are the last people we should steal from to satisfy the state's budget woes,'' he said, ''especially when they are participating in programs that have proven much more efficient, financially, for the state than committing people to institutions or funding health care agencies that demand exorbitant administrative fees.''

Dozens of people crowded the committee room, stood in the hallway outside or listened to the testimony in a separate room. A large crowd is expected again today, when additional human services cuts will be the subject of another public hearing.

Lawmakers are scheduled to complete public hearings on the budget Thursday, when they take testimony about proposed cuts to education.

Work sessions will follow, and legislators will decide which of Baldacci's proposals to keep and which to change.

Some of the most powerful testimony on Tuesday came from Brian Binette, a 36-year-old Saco man with cerebral palsy.

''Think of a newborn baby, helpless for the first two years of life,'' he said. ''I am not a baby, but I need the same level of care. You would not cut your baby's care in hard economic times. The people in this room need your support for these independent services.''


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