AUGUSTA – As state officials rush to cut the budget by more than $200 million by mid-April in order to comply with Maine law, they run the risk of placing further economic burden on taxpayers.

Community- and home-based health care advocates raised this point with state legislators Monday.

Some budget cuts proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services could force people into nursing homes and ultimately cost the state more, said Graham Newson, executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging at a news conference in the State House.

“We find ourselves at a crossroads,” Newson said. “People want to remain in their homes as long as possible as an alternative to nursing home care.”

Maine leads the nation in home-based care, which is significantly cheaper than nursing home care, Newson said.

Despite that fact, DHHS has proposed nearly $5 million in cuts to community- and home-based health care services over the biennium to help the state meet its bottom line this year.

The average annual cost of home-care services is $4,800 per person while the average annual cost of nursing home care is $62,000, according to the American Association of Retired Persons. So while Maine has a greater percentage of people enrolled in home-care programs than other states, it saves money by keeping them out of nursing homes.

“It is the difference between looking at this biennium versus next biennium,” said Diana Scully, DHHS’ director of the Office of Elder Services, referring to the state budget.

While the future fiscal burden of the proposed cuts on the state remains uncalculated, the emotional burden will be felt immediately.

“A couple of thousand of older and disabled people will be affected by these cuts,” said Scully. “That’s the part that is so painful.”

John Martins, DHHS’ spokesman, said the department was trying to target its cuts on programs that did not receive federal funding, so the state could continue to draw down as much money as possible.

But a series of federal Medicaid rule changes threatens to further thwart the state’s efforts to protect Maine’s elderly and disabled populations by cutting $45 million from the state budget.

“Everything is hitting at once,” Scully said. “We are dealing with the revenue shortfalls and rule changes all at the same time.”

Scully said she hoped Congress would intervene and prevent the changes from taking effect.

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said last week that she was upset with changes.

“It doesn’t make sense to arbitrarily change rules,” Snowe said. “Why not take the most cost-effective and compassionate approach?”

At the state level, Lewiston Democrat Rep. Margaret Craven is doing her part to come up with a solution to Maine’s health care woes. She used Monday’s press conference to promote her bill that would create a commission to develop a plan for financing and expanding home-based services.

“It is evident that with our demographics and the fact that we are one of the oldest states in the country, it is time for us to develop a comprehensive plan for long-term services in our state,” Craven said.

The commission would be privately funded, she said.

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