Lawmakers

told cuts would

be devastating

AUGUSTA – Hundreds of handicapped clients of social services and service providers turned out for a hearing Monday to protest Gov. John Baldacci’s plan to cut programs in response to a $128 million Medicaid shortfall.

Speakers, who stood in long lines for a chance to address legislators, said the cuts would not only bring more hardship and pain into many lives, but would affect thousands of social workers’ jobs as well.

“I think this is all about jobs,” Rick Dorian, director of a Farmington-based social service agency, told a news conference outside the Augusta Civic Center, where the Appropriations and Health and Human Services committees heard testimony.

Dorian, who is also vice president of the Maine Association for Community Service Providers, said the cuts represent a loss of 800 of the member agencies’ 8,000 jobs.

Statewide, job losses stemming from the full scale of cuts could add up to 10,000 and $30 to $40 million in lost revenues, advocates said.

Maine’s Medicaid program, known as MaineCare, serves 250,000 people through 7,000 providers in the state. With a looming Medicaid shortfall of $128 million for fiscal 2005, which starts in July, the administration has proposed cutting $73 million for MaineCare programs.

The cuts would affect mental health programs, dental services, physical, occupational and speech therapy among other services.

Jack Fuller of the Maine Dental Access Coalition called the cuts “a mean-spirited shell game” that would send people who can now receive emergency dental care to hospital emergency rooms instead.

Not only is that more expensive, but emergency rooms also lack the antibiotics and pain relievers needed to treat dental problems, Fuller said.

Many of the 30,000 Mainers with Alzheimer’s disease receive therapeutic adult day care services that would be eliminated under the budget revisions. But the $266,000 in cuts would be more than offset by the costs of hospital and other long-term care options, said Kathryn Pears of the Maine Alzheimer’s Association.

Speakers addressing lawmakers from their wheelchairs spoke of the need to continue services that keep them independent and productive. The alternative, institutionalization, is much more expensive, they said.

Kennebec County Sheriff Everett Flannery joined those opposing the cuts, saying one-third of people in the county jail have mental disorders. If those offenders had been properly treated, they would probably not be in jail, said Flannery.

Having mentally ill offenders in county prisons shifts costs that should be borne by statewide taxes to property taxpayers, Flannery added.

Some of those opposing the Medicaid cuts suggested increasing taxes on tobacco, alcohol, recreational activities, and even raising the 5 percent sales tax by 1 percent.

Without flat-out rejecting the idea of a tax increase, a spokesman for Baldacci said the governor’s main priority is to keep Maine competitive, and raising taxes is no way to do that. But spokesman Lee Umphrey said the governor is willing to listen, too.

“This is a proposed budget and this is the start of a process, and working with the Legislature we will balance the state’s fiscal needs and meet the needs of the people,” Umphrey said.

A co-chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, Portland Democratic Sen. Michael Brennan, said after seeing Monday’s outpouring of concern that there was little chance the governor’s proposed cuts as proposed would remain intact.

“There will be cuts, but I can’t imagine they will be as deep or as far-reaching as he’s put on the table,” Brennan said.

Leaders of the minority Republicans said the cuts would not be necessary if Baldacci and the Democrats had moved forward more slowly when Dirigo Health, the state’s program to provide health insurance access to everyone, was enacted last spring.

“These cuts would be avoidable if the Medicaid expansion included in Dirigo Health were phased in,” said Assistant House Republican Leader David Bowles, R-Sanford.

AP-ES-03-15-04 1632EST



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