Turning back the clock on social care

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On Tuesday, Gov. Paul LePage urged Republican lawmakers to wield their majority clout and pass his budget proposal, forcing deep and painful cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services to meet a $220 million projected shortfall.

Working under that pressure, early on Wednesday members of the Appropriations Committee unanimously voted on a compromise deal to cut $120 million now, filling the 2012 fiscal gap, and temporarily tabled work on the remaining $100 million projected shortfall in the 2013 budget.

It’s not a done deal and will have to pass a vote of the full Legislature, but it’s a significant compromise that we hope is fully considered absent the grip of majority partisanship.

While considering the merits of the compromise, it might help if lawmakers took a moment to consider the very real Greek tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes in the Mediterranean.

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There, the government has imposed 40 percent cuts in all government programs while increasing sales taxes 23 percent to raise revenue.

On Wednesday, NBC reported that in hospitals burdened with 40 percent cuts, medical admissions are up 25 percent, stressing staff and endangering care.

The number of patients being seen in free, charity care clinics has quadrupled, according to NBC’s numbers, and people are dying from starvation and illness because they no longer have access to food and medical care.

The tension of reduced government funding and increased social need is — literally — killing people.

The financial problems in Greece and Maine are of vastly different scale, but the social ramifications will be similar if we cannot — working together — figure out how to smartly manage DHHS, an agency that LePage is right to criticize as growing and spending out of proportion to our population and our means.

Reforming DHHS is an ideal that must become a reality.

One of the most fruitful reforms that Commissioner Mary Mayhew says is already on the table is identifying the tiny percentage of clients who use the greatest amount of financial resources in unnecessary or excessive emergency department visits and focus attention on managing their care. Saving money by reducing tax-paid hospital visits makes sense, and is long overdue.

The Appropriations Committee took care of another overdue reform in its compromise deal, by lowering eligibility guidelines to meet — instead of exceed — federal levels. It means thousands of people will fall outside DHHS coverage, which will hurt, but DHHS simply cannot exist in its current, bloated form.

On Wednesday, one of the Sun Journal’s online readers commented on a letter to the editor about the governor’s handling of the DHHS debt, asking: “How in the world did the human race survive before DHHS and before government intervention?”

We don’t know about the entire human race, but in Lewiston the churches functioned as the city’s “safety net.”

These institutions fed, clothed and housed the sick and the poor.

Families that were too poor to care for their children would drop them off at the Healy Asylum to be raised and educated by the Grey Nuns. Families that could no longer care for their elderly relatives would drop the aged off in front of St. Mary’s Hospital.

According to St. Mary’s CEO Lee Myles, the practice of abandoning elderly relatives at the hospital’s front door continues today, not at the rate of yesteryear, but enough to know with certainty that struggling families can be forced to make harsh choices that may seem incomprehensible to others.

The Republican majority can, if it wants, reject the compromise on the table and back the governor’s more aggressive proposal.

The majority can, if it wants, look at the DHHS debt as a simple spreadsheet problem, without considering the people who would be traumatized in the process.

We hope compromise prevails. It’s not perfect, but it’s progress.

We cannot reverse the clock to a time when it was socially acceptable to abandon infants at orphanages and great-grandparents at hospitals. To a time when soup kitchens and bread lines served as sustenance for many, and when people begged for clothes and coins.

Is that really what we want to return to?

And, if so, who’s first?

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.

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