AUGUSTA — The co-chairman of the Legislature's budget committee said his Republican colleagues can't support one of the largest and most controversial cuts in Gov. Paul LePage's Department of Health and Human Services budget proposal.
Rep. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, the House chairman of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday Republicans won't back the governor's plan to cut $60 million from private non-medical institutions.
The PNMI cut is one of the largest cuts in LePage's proposal to eliminate $220 million from the state's MaineCare program.
There are about 470 PNMI facilities in Maine housing about 6,000 residents, most of whom would have to find new living arrangements if LePage's plan is approved. The facilities are described by advocates as housing the state's most vulnerable residents.
PNMIs often house elderly individuals who have given up their homes but who are not in nursing homes. According to DHHS, the PNMIs provide personal care and housing to about 4,290 elderly residents. The facilities also house drug rehabilitation patients and veterans.
All that made the governor's proposed PNMI cut one of the most controversial in the DHHS proposal. During public hearings held before the holidays, hundreds of advocates singled out the PNMI cut as one of the most harmful.
Flood told the panel Tuesday that the GOP caucus met last week and agreed it couldn't support the PNMI proposal. Flood said the Appropriations Committee would try to find another way to ensure funding remained for PNMIs.
The LePage administration has said the state's PNMI program has come under federal scrutiny and that the program was in jeopardy of losing matching federal funds.
However, advocates for the facilities have said the state need only draft new language to bring the PNMIs closer to compliance.
The governor's office said LePage knew "all along" that an alternative to the proposed cut would be necessary. Adrienne Bennett, LePage's spokeswoman, said that was why the administration's proposal set aside an additional $39 million in the budget stabilization fund.
Bennett said the money was meant to give lawmakers latitude "as they explore alternatives" to the governor's proposal.
That explanation didn't fly with Democrats, who questioned why the governor would include PNMI in his budget proposal if he knew from the outset that it wasn't feasible.
Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, called the administration's response "unbelievable."
Rotundo said it didn't make sense that the administration would propose a cut that constituted one-quarter of the DHHS proposal if it knew in advance that it wasn't going to have support from Republicans.
"What I’m thinking about are all the calls and the emails that I have been getting from families who have been living in such fear that as of July 1 that their loved ones are going to be out on the street," Rotundo said. "To think that the governor used them as pawns in this budget is deeply disturbing to me."
She added, "It calls into question the other proposals in this budget. ... What else is he (LePage) withholding from us? Who else is he using as pawns?"
Bennett said the administration anticipated that it would have to work with Legislature and that Rotundo's comments were "out of line." She indicated that the governor's proposal stemmed from the federal government's concerns that Maine was using Medicaid dollars to pay for room and board in the PNMI program.
During Tuesday's work session with lawmakers, the DHHS commissioner told the Appropriations Committee on two occasions that the federal concerns were a consideration, however, its inclusion in the current proposal was a "budgetary initiative" and not a response to a federal mandate.
Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, the ranking Democrat on the Health and Human Services Committee, said the administration's explanations made it hard to determine the "credibility of the document."
"It is very hard to work on a document that seems so untruthful," she said.