March 3, 2010

Health advocates speak out on proposed cuts


— By . COVER

Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Doctors, home health care providers and the Maine AIDS Alliance all testified Monday in opposition to proposed cuts to the state's general assistance and other social service budgets.

While all told slightly different stories, the message was the same: The cuts will seriously affect services that elderly residents and those with serious illnesses depend on.

''We're not able to do more with less, we're doing less with less,'' said Andrew Bossie of the Maine AIDS Alliance. ''When it comes to HIV, less with less is a deadly option.''

Bossie said a proposed 10 percent cut to state Medicaid reimbursements would mean the loss of $80,000 that now pays for case management services.

Others, including several who are HIV-positive and a nurse who treats them, also testified against the cuts.

The public hearing marked the beginning of what's expected to be an emotional week at the State House, where dozens of people will speak against proposed cuts to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Human Services Commissioner Brenda Harvey began the day by explaining that her department has already made significant cuts: reducing the work force by 300 and spending $32 million less since 2003. Meanwhile, because of the economic downturn, the department is providing services to 120,000 more people, she said.

In addition to cuts to the department, the proposal would reduce funding for many social service agencies and hospitals. Gov. John Baldacci proposed these cuts and many others as a way to close a $438 million shortfall in the state's $5.8 billion two-year budget.

The proposal also cuts General Assistance funding that goes to cities and towns, with Bangor and Portland absorbing 92 percent of that cut. That means a $1.3 million loss for Portland and a $500,000 loss for Bangor, according to the Maine Municipal Association.

Portland City Council member John Anton told the committee that Portland is a service center that provides funding to some of the neediest people in the state. Most of the money is used to pay for housing and food.

''It is important to note that General Assistance is the resource of last resort,'' he said. ''Recipients must liquidate all their available resources -- including retirement accounts, savings and life insurance policies -- in order to qualify for assistance.''

Mollie Baldwin of Home Care for Maine, a nonprofit that provides personal care services to 800 people across the state, said the cuts may force the group to reduce services in rural areas.

''The majority of the consumers we serve cannot make it to Augusta to tell you how important these services are to them,'' she said.

Another proposal targets the state's 15 smallest hospitals by reducing their Medicaid reimbursements. Mary Mayhew of the Maine Hospital Association said those hospitals already absorbed a similar reduction as part of a previous round of cuts.

''This is the seventh year of dealing with very significant shortfalls in the state budget,'' she said.

While all who testified opposed the cuts, some offered alternatives.

Joan Churchill, family services director at Community Concepts, a nonprofit that provides social services, proposed a 1 percent to 2 percent cut across all state general funds.

She also said the Legislature should consider raising taxes on alcohol or tobacco.

The tax debate will continue at the State House today, with groups supporting and opposing any tax increase holding dueling news conferences.

In all, the proposed cuts and those from recent years amount to a reduction of 18 percent to 24 percent to community based child-welfare services, Churchill said.

''This may cause the collapse of the state's community-based child welfare system that has been in place since 1999 in direct response to child deaths,'' she said.


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