WESTBROOK — Ninety-year-old Robert Fennell stood at the podium, clutching his walker, his 88-year-old wife, Priscilla, right behind him in the first row of seats.

They traveled from Albion to this packed committee room in the State House to speak up against Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed cuts to senior health care. Those cuts would cost them hundreds of dollars every month, an expense they could not scrape together on their annual income of just over $20,000.

Robert Fennell was barely able to stand, but he was a strong voice for all the Maine seniors who have contributed so much and are looking for nothing more than basic medical care as they grow old.

Hundreds of people weighed in on the governor’s plan over five days, many of them waiting for hours to speak during joint public hearings before the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee and the Health and Human Services Committee. They made it clear that the Department of Health and Human Services portion of the governor’s budget ignores the needs of seniors and children.

On each of those days, Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew reminded lawmakers that the budget is a clear reflection of the governor’s priorities. If that’s really true, Maine’s seniors and children have a lot to be worried about because they are clearly at the bottom of the governor’s priority list, far below the big corporations and wealthy estates that would benefit from proposed tax cuts.

We heard from seniors facing massive cuts to their health care benefit – cuts what would force poor, elderly Mainers to choose between paying for medical bills or buying groceries. With the thousands of additional dollars they’d pay in insurance premiums, they won’t have money to heat their homes. It’s infuriating that people who contributed so much to Maine have to show up in Augusta to beg their government not to cut the health care benefits that they worked for their entire lives.


We heard how the LePage budget ignores the needs of seniors who want to age at home. Over 1,200 elderly Mainers languish on DHHS waiting lists hoping to receive home care that will allow them to stay in their communities among families and friends.

Commissioner Mayhew told us repeatedly that the DHHS is on firm financial footing, yet the LePage budget does not provide a single additional dollar for home care, even though providers haven’t had a rate increase in over 15 years and are finding it increasingly difficult to hire qualified staff to care for elders in our communities. Those seniors on waiting lists will continue to wait, or even worse, be forced into nursing homes.

Things aren’t any better for some of Maine’s most vulnerable children. The LePage budget proposes steep cuts to mental health services for children with autism and serious mental illness. Doctors and caregivers told us that this short-sighted approach would prevent them from managing the medical and social needs of highly disabled youth. Kids with disabilities won’t develop the skills they need to lead the most productive lives possible, with some entering adulthood at risk of needing more expensive institutional care or hospitalization.

We heard emotional testimony from their parents about how quality treatment brings hope and stability to families and how their children can flourish when effective supports are available early and consistently. The waiting lists for these services would only grow under the governor’s proposal and make a bad situation desperately worse.

Early education is also at the bottom of the governor’s priorities. We know that children who show up for kindergarten ready to learn continue to achieve better results throughout their school years and into adulthood. Every $1 invested in early education provides at least $7 in return.

Unfortunately, although we currently only fund 30 percent of the kids eligible for Head Start, the governor proposes no additional funding for more than 11,000 underserved children. The Legislature just last spring provided $4 million to expand pre-kindergarten, but now the governor wants to eliminate that funding entirely.

I agree with Commissioner Mayhew that the final budget needs to reflect our priorities as Mainers. We just need to make sure that seniors and kids get the high priority that they deserve.

We have a lot of work ahead of us over the next couple of months as dive into the detail of these budget initiatives and find smart, cost-effective solutions. As we roll up our sleeves, we can’t forget the stories we heard from Mainers, people like Robert Fennell, who deserve our support.


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