AUGUSTA — Keeping students away from alcohol, drugs, junk food and stress is an important service provided by school health centers, Maranacook High School senior Christian Wick said Friday.

Wick and other high school students came to the State House for the third and final day of hearings on Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to close a $221 million budget deficit in the Department of Health and Human Services.

At a news conference Friday morning, Wick said Maine’s 16 school-based health centers, which would lose 66 percent of their funding under LePage’s plan, give students quick access to help.

“Students can get health care when they need it, at school, before problems become more serious,” he said.

For the fiscal year that starts July 1, 2012, the state will have $54 million in settlement money from tobacco companies that were sued by 46 states in 1998. The states wanted money to help cover the cost of “health-related expenses caused by smoking tobacco,” according to a recent analysis of the fund.

In 1999, Maine’s Legislature approved eight categories in which the money can be spent, including smoking prevention and cessation, prenatal and young children’s care, child care, prescription drugs for the elderly or disabled, dental and oral health care for the poor, and school-based health centers.

LePage is proposing to take $29 million out of the fund in 2012-13 and move it to MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program. That way, the $29 million would be eligible for federal matching funds that would nearly double the amount, said LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett.

“We need to prioritize during these difficult fiscal times,” she said. “If we can help our most vulnerable, that’s the most appropriate use of our funding right now.”

Bennett said there still would be enough tobacco settlement money to continue funding the state’s tobacco helpline, which helps people quit smoking, and money for a tobacco cessation program.

“We want to keep that money where it was originally intended to go,” she said.

The transfer out of the Fund for a Healthy Maine would eliminate a home visiting program in which new and adolescent parents learn about child development. It would reduce funding for Head Start, eliminate all funds for a dental program for low-income Mainers, and take $1 million out of a fund that pays for immunizations. The $1 million represents 10 percent of the money in the immunization fund.

Becky Smith, of Friends of the Fund for a Healthy Maine, said that, although the administration argues it can use the money more effectively by drawing down federal funds, it’s cheaper to prevent disease than to treat it.

“There have been studies that have shown for every $1 spent on prevention, it saves $7.50 down the road,” she said.

Also, moving the money to MaineCare – which has strict income guidelines – would narrow the population of people who would benefit from the settlement money, she said.

“The money is supposed to help all Mainers to prevent people from getting sick,” she said.

Over the three days of public hearings on LePage’s budget-balancing proposal, more than 360 people signed up to testify before the Legislature’s Appropriations and Health and Human Services committees.

While the vast majority testified in opposition to the budget, a handful said they support LePage’s effort to cut spending in the DHHS.

One of them was Gerald Thibodeau of Bangor, who urged lawmakers Friday to cut funding for the Family Planning Association of Maine. LePage is proposing to eliminate $400,000 in tobacco settlement funds that now go to family planning centers across the state. The cuts would mean that seven of the 31 centers would close, including those in Topsham, Sanford and Damariscotta.

Thibodeau said it’s time for the state to cut back support for social programs. “Maine welfare spending is out of control,” he said.

On Tuesday, the two legislative committees will have a joint work session on the budget. They also plan to meet Jan. 3, and there will be several other meetings to discuss the budget in January.

Rep. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, House chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers are still not clear what portions of the shortfall are short-term, long-term or systemic.

“We’re still struggling in committee with having the kinds of budgetary information we’re used to having,” he said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

[email protected]