Groups to watch possible cuts at DHHS closely
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BY SCOTT MONROE
Staff Writer
Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel 12/20/2009

AUGUSTA -- Steve Hoad listened to Gov. John Baldacci announce plans on Friday for cuts and other adjustments that total $438 million.

The proposed cuts include a reduction of $67.8 million to the Department of Health and Human Services and the elimination of 6.5 positions.

Hoad is a leader with the Maine Association of Inter-dependent Neighbors, a coalition of organizations representing low-income Mainers. He said it's too soon to tell how the proposal could affect low-income people who rely on services such as mental health or elderly care.

Still, Hoad wished the governor had explored other possibilities to increase revenues.

"They're program cuts and it's important to know that, but I think many of the initial things they said will need some fleshing out," Hoad said. "It will be an interesting situation for Maine's children."

Sitting beside Hoad was Sara Gagne-Holmes of Maine Equal Justice Partners, whose group also works with low-income people and on poverty issues.

"I did hope for a more balanced approach," she said. "You can't always cut to get out of the current crisis."

Despite those concerns, Baldacci and his top officials made assurances Friday that the proposed budget adjustments would protect core programs and services.

In prepared remarks, Brenda Harvey, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the reductions would result in small changes to many services provided by the state, instead of the elimination of programs.

She spent more time talking about what services would remain intact than what would actually be scaled back. Such untouched services, she said, include adult mental health services, crisis stabilization, medication management, residential treatment, specialized nursing care, rental assistance and more.

Meanwhile, Harvey said "significant funds have been protected to secure maximum matching federal funds in the MaineCare program," which is the state's version of Medicaid.

"Our priorities continue to be assuring that people have access to food, shelter, protective services and medical care," Harvey said. "We have preserved state dollars to draw matching federal funds for MaineCare programs and other jointly funded federal programs, like child care and services to elders.

"Rather than wholesale elimination of programs, we have made reductions in the quantity of service and reimbursement rates."

Still, the cuts are "painful," Harvey conceded.

For example, she said, a MaineCare client receiving 10 hours of allowable services could see that reduced to eight hours.

Other notable cost-lowering proposals include:

* Rate reductions to many MaineCare service providers, though physicians, pharmacists and dentists are exempted.

* Lowering reimbursements to so-called critical-access hospitals in rural areas, from 109 percent of MaineCare allowable costs to 101.

* Eliminating 6.5 positions from the department. Four people will lose jobs, one position is vacant and another employee is retiring.

* Reorganizing the workload for medical staff in the mental health program.

The Department of Health and Human Services, including MaineCare, accounts of 28.6 percent of the state government's General Fund. The cuts to the department amount to 15.5 percent of the total $438 million in proposed budget adjustments.

Some advocates on Friday already signaled strong concerns about the proposed cuts.

On Monday, public health advocates -- including members of Health Policy Partners and young people from Readfield and Portland -- are expected to propose increasing the price of tobacco products as an alternative to health service cuts.

Steven Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association, said Friday that he's troubled by the proposed reductions. That's a shame, he said, because critical-access hospitals are also receiving federal matching funds.

"For every dollar they cut, we're leaving $3 in Washington, because of the match," Michaud said.

Scott Monroe -- 861-9253

smonroe@centralmaine.com