AUGUSTA — Rena Heath, a senior who lives on a fixed income, was the first of nearly 100 people to testify Monday against more than $14 million in proposed cuts to Maine’s current health and human services budget.
Heath urged legislators to block a $985,000 reduction in Medicaid prescription drug funding for elderly and disabled Mainers, while other speakers opposed pending cuts to General Assistance, substance abuse services, mental health care and payments to providers.
“Cutting access to prescription drugs will unnecessarily endanger lives and will likely result in higher costs to Maine’s already overburdened and costly health care system,” said Heath, a volunteer AARP advocate who lives in Hallowell.
The proposed reduction to the Low Cost Drugs for the Elderly and Disabled Program is part of Gov. Paul LePage’s effort to address a $90 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services budget ending June 30.
The shortfall has been blamed largely on higher-than-planned costs for MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, after federal economic stimulus money ran out two years ago. However, MaineCare general fund expenditures are projected to be about $30 million less than in the last fiscal year, said DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew.
The Legislature’s Appropriations and Health and Human Services committees heard testimony all day Monday on cuts proposed in LePage’s supplemental budget for the year ending June 30.
“We heard strong opposition to the governor’s cuts throughout the day,” Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the Appropriations Committee’s House chairwoman, said in a prepared statement. “We will be looking for fair and reasonable alternatives that won’t shift costs to our cities and towns.”
Mayhew started the session with a brief overview of proposed DHHS spending reductions, though documents she provided to the committees didn’t identify the total savings.
The drug program for the elderly and disabled helps disabled people who have a two-year waiting period before Medicare coverage begins and Mainers age 62 to 65 who don’t qualify for Medicare, according to Maine Equal Justice Partners.
Mayhew has proposed eliminating the program in the budget for the next two fiscal years, which would save $7 million over two years.
“Older Mainers are grappling, as they do every year, with the crushing costs of buying food, soaring out-of-pocket health care costs, heating their homes and everyday living expenses,” Heath told committee members. “Please do not balance the budget on the backs of those who have absolutely nothing to give.”
The committees also heard testimony against Mayhew’s plan to:
• Cap General Assistance reimbursements to municipalities at just over $10 million.
• Cut $4.9 million in substance abuse funding, including $28,612 for classes for people found guilty of driving under the influence, which would affect about 60 adults and 10 youths.
• Reduce MaineCare reimbursement rates to hospitals to save $1.8 million.
• Cut $1.7 million for contracted community mental health services, including mobile and crisis stabilization units.
Sen. Colleen Lachowicz, D-Waterville, questioned whether cutting emergency mental health services would drive up costs in hospital emergency rooms and elsewhere.
“Clearly, there are potential costs that may be increased elsewhere,” Mayhew said.
Some speakers opposed a proposed $124,736 cut in the state’s Independent Support Services Program, of which Catholic Charities Maine is the sole contractor.
Also known as the State Homemaker Program, it provides housekeeping, grocery shopping, meal preparation and transportation to medical appointments for people who otherwise couldn’t live independently, said Steve Letourneau, Catholic Charities’ CEO.
Letourneau noted the program’s cost-saving benefits, at $90 to $150 per month or $1,080 to $1,800 per year, compared to $39,600 per year for an assisted-living facility or $96,360 per year for a nursing home.
Judith Mitchell, 64, got emotional while telling the committees how much the program means to her.
A former licensed practical nurse, Mitchell has been blind since 1990 and counts on the monthly visits to help her with housework and other tasks she cannot do alone. The proposed cut would reduce her monthly service from eight to five hours, and the cuts are proposed to carry into the next two years.
“I’m blind, but I want to stay as independent as possible,” Mitchell said after the hearing. “I’ve lost enough. Without this help, I’d have to go into assisted living or a boarding home.”
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: