AUGUSTA — This year’s state budget process was certainly imperfect. An unnecessary shutdown marred our work, and many critical issues were left unaddressed. Though most lawmakers can find some or many pieces with which to be disappointed, as House chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, I want to take a moment to focus on some of the good things we were able to pass in the budget. These quiet victories mean that more Mainers can live independent, healthy and productive lives, regardless of their circumstances.

Reimbursement rates for intellectual and disability services have been repeatedly cut since 2007. Throughout this legislative session, we heard over and over that group homes are struggling to stay afloat, unable to pay their workers a competitive salary or attract new, dedicated professionals to provide current services. Maine’s new budget finally raises reimbursement rates for these services through Medicaid. This ensures that providers on the brink can keep their doors open and protect the 12,000 workers now employed in provider organizations. The bill will also help end the revolving door of caregivers, which causes serious stress for vulnerable people with disabilities.

The budget also doubles the number of hours of services that individuals can receive, filling a vital services gap. It also bars any cuts to reimbursement rates for mental and behavioral health waiver services. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services had intended to cut these rates significantly, which would have decimated critical services, including in-home supports and group homes.

We can and must do so much more for these folks, but this is a good start toward making these critical networks more sustainable. No Mainer should fear for the safety of their loved ones.

The Health and Human Services Committee also spent significant time this session discussing Maine’s public health infrastructure, especially the degradation of our public health nursing program. Over the last six years, the number of public health nurses in Maine has dropped to less than half of the original 59 professionals working in the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Cuts and understaffing in the state’s corps of public health nurses have jeopardized Maine’s ability to respond to health crises such as disease outbreaks and the drug epidemic.

While Gov. LePage proposed cutting additional nursing positions in the budget that the DHHS has neglected to fill, we were able to save these positions in hopes that the department will fill these critical slots and begin the work of rebuilding these critical services across the state.

Another vital part of our health infrastructure are Maine’s critical access hospitals. These hospitals serve most of Maine’s uninsured patients and operate on very thin budgets in rural areas. By rejecting cuts to reimbursement rates for critical access hospitals, we were able to ensure that they are paid fairly for the important work they do and keep their doors open for our communities across the state.

It was incredibly important to me that we pass a budget that does the most good for the most Mainers. The Legislature took great steps to strengthen our safety net and tackle child poverty head on by implementing the first cost-of-living increase in 15 years for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients – 75 percent of whom are children. Additionally, the DHHS will use TANF dollars that have been stockpiled over the last several years to connect families with reliable transportation to help them get to a job, get their kids to school and meet other obligations.

These and other reforms, including increased heating assistance and housing support for our neighbors in poverty, means that families with children have a better chance at meeting their basic needs and getting on a path to independence and economic security.

Mainers value dignity, hard work, practicality and independence. The programs carried out by the DHHS are meant to create a bridge from challenging circumstances to the ability to live out these ideals. Despite any disappointments some have, overall this budget increases education funding, lowers property taxes, strengthens our economy and protects seniors, low-income families and children and Mainers with disabilities. Maine’s budget – supported by 182 of Maine’s 186 legislators, and signed by the governor – reflects these goals and will forge a healthy, secure and productive future for our state.