AUGUSTA — Democrats continued to question the numbers driving Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed cuts to Medicaid on Tuesday as a legislative committee began four days of meetings to consider the plan.

The $221 million budget deficit that LePage is citing as the reason to make the cuts was caused by the administration’s mistakes, said critics of the proposal to drop 65,000 people from the MaineCare program, Maine’s version of Medicaid.

“There were budget errors on the part of the administration and it’s not clear how much of the shortfall is one-time and how much is ongoing,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, after a briefing on the numbers by several Department of Health and Human Services officials.

The DHHS budget proposed by LePage for the next 18 months would reduce or eliminate money given to senior citizens for prescription drugs, end all state funding for Head Start, and stop providing health insurance for childless adults and some parents. Also proposed is the closure of residential facilities that provide services for people who are mentally ill and people who have Alzheimer’s disease.

While Democrats on the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee remained unconvinced by a detailed four-hour explanation of the numbers, at least one Republican member of the committee said the briefing illustrated the need for the cuts.

“What really came to light, for me, was the degree to which Maine taxpayers are paying for MaineCare,” said Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport.

The state budget for the fiscal year that started July 1 now includes $650 million from the general fund, $150 million more than in the previous fiscal year. And now, there is an estimated shortfall of $123 million through June 30. Taxpayers shouldn’t be expected to cover that cost, Fredette said.

“We can’t be all things to all people,” Fredette said. “This is a DHHS problem and it has to be solved as a DHHS problem.”

During the presentation, Rotundo asked DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew why the projection of the shortfall has grown in recent months from $70 million to $123 million.

“How can we be confident these figures you’re presenting us with today are the right figures?” Rotundo asked.

Mayhew said her team of top-level advisors — she brought six with her to answer questions Tuesday — has spent the last two months studying the issue.

“My charge to this group has been to challenge every assumption they’ve made,” she said. “My confidence has increased in this shortfall analysis.”

Of the $123 million shortfall, $6.5 million is due to increased enrollment in Medicaid programs, while $30 million is because of a new computer billing system that pushed claims from the last fiscal year to this one. Another $19 million is attributed to underfunding for residential facilities known as private non-medical institutions.

An independent analysis of the DHHS shortfall by the Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review backed up some of the information from the DHHS, but raised questions about other numbers.

Chris Nolan, an analyst with the nonpartisan office, said he can understand where the $123 million number comes from, but “we still have some disagreements.”

In addition, Nolan said, he understands the $123 million shortfall in money that comes from the general fund, but when he takes a broader view at all DHHS funding sources, the shortfall is smaller. He did not put a number on the estimated shortfall if all funds are included.

“There does not appear to be the same magnitude of shortfall,” he said.

Starting today, as the Appropriations Committee begins three days of public hearings, hundreds of people are expected to be at the State House to protest the cuts.

On the other side, the Maine Republican Party sent out an email blast to supporters Tuesday to encourage them to testify in support of the cuts.

“It is critical that you help show support for common sense budgeting in Maine,” the email reads. “The governor is not proposing radical cuts — his proposal merely moves Maine back toward the national average of services.”

Also Tuesday, LePage’s press office continued trying to build support for the proposal by launching a link on his web page to explain the cuts. Of the many statistics offered, LePage points out that 361,000 Mainers are on Medicaid, and says if Maine were at the national average, the figure would be 260,000.

Democrats remained unconvinced.

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, said the budget deficit was caused in large part by poor planning, not a significant increase in enrollment, according to a statement from the House Minority Office.

“We learned today that the budget hole was partially caused by poor planning and questionable assumptions from the administration,” Martin said. “We don’t have a problem of increased enrollment of MaineCare. Contrary to the governor’s rhetoric, what we have here is a realization of a failure to plan nearly a year into the governor’s tenure.”

After the hearings, the Appropriations Committee will decide which parts of LePage’s proposal should move forward to the Legislature in January, and whether any other proposals should be made.

Susan Cover — 620-7015

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