AUGUSTA — Republican lawmakers have rejected the most controversial piece of Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to balance the Department of Health and Human Services’ budget, which would have cut funding for homes that serve the elderly, the mentally ill and people with substance abuse problems.

With Democrats also opposing the Republican governor’s plan, 4,300 elderly Mainers and close to 1,700 others who are mentally ill or being treated for addiction will continue to get help at private non-medical institutions – and $60 million will have to be cut from other parts of the budget.

Republicans on the Legislature’s Appropriations and Health and Human Services committees decided last week that they cannot support the proposal to end funding for the institutions July 1, said Rep. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, House chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

“We know there’s a lot of concern out there, a lot of uncertainty,” Flood said. “The Republican members want to work with the executive branch on this.”

Democrats have “firmly opposed” the cut since LePage proposed his budget for the DHHS last month, said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston.

LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said Tuesday that the governor has been willing to work with lawmakers to find a way to keep the homes open.

“The governor, all along, has realized that an alternative would be necessary,” she said in a prepared statement. “That is why he set aside $39 million in the budget stabilization fund that is available for the Legislature to use as they explore alternatives.”

Later Tuesday, she said, “I understand the media is trying to pit the whole (Legislature) against the governor; it makes great headlines. … (Republicans) are saying they don’t agree with these cuts. The governor put ($39 million) in his plan acknowledging that we needed to find some sort of alternative.”
That led Democrats to criticize LePage for proposing the cuts in the first place.

“It seems very irresponsible to be frightening 6,000 families and leaving them wondering what they are going to do with their loved ones,” said Rep. David Webster, D-Freeport.

In a news release from House Democrats, Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said LePage has been urging swift action, yet “he now admits he never intended those cuts to go forward.”

“He’s playing a dangerous game of chicken,” Martin said.

The decision to pull the proposal from a budget that’s designed to fill a $221 million shortfall over the next 18 months means lawmakers will have to look elsewhere to cut spending.

Appropriations Committee Senate Chairman Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, said the committees have met only twice, so it’s premature to speculate where they might find the funds. More meetings are scheduled this week, and a final vote by the full Legislature isn’t expected until the end of the month.

Rosen said the $60 million in savings proposed by LePage was never going to be realized because many of the people who now get services would still need state help if the homes closed.

“As we analyzed the proposal, and it became clear many of the clients will still be eligible for services, the booking of $60 million is not realistic,” he said.

During budget deliberations Tuesday, DHHS staffers said that the federal government has raised several questions about how Maine receives federal money to support the facilities. Federal officials are concerned about whether the rates are excessive, whether the providers are qualified, and whether people who live at the facilities get to choose who provides their services, among other things.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said she expects negotiations with the federal government to continue into the summer as the state looks for ways to make the system comply with federal guidelines.

Advocates for the elderly say the question is now what will be cut to balance the budget. John Hennessy of AARP Maine said Tuesday’s news will ease the minds of the elderly whose homes would have closed.

“They will breathe a sigh of relief, but what’s next is what they will be worried about now,” he said.

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