WATERVILLE — The city apparently is feeling the sting of cuts to MaineCare as more and more people visit the city’s general assistance and health and welfare office seeking help.

“We’re just inundated with people coming in for life-sustaining medications,” said Linda Fossa, director of general assistance and health and welfare.

Fossa spoke Tuesday night at a City Council budget workshop, where Councilor John O’Donnell, D-Ward 5, said it appeared her budget for prescription medications was some $2,000 in the 2013-14 fiscal year, and it has jumped considerably this year.

“As of today, we’ve spent $4,300,” Fossa said. “That’s because people have lost their MaineCare in the last year.”

She said that while most people associate her office with general assistance only, it also does a lot of work that does not cost the city anything, such as working with at-risk adults and children and working with schools on health issues. The office also works closely with the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter. On Friday, a caseworker in her office worked on 17 cases that involved general assistance applications and following up applications; Fossa and another case worker processed 10 cases Friday, she said.

The people they deal with do not have enough income for basic necessities such as food and rent, she said. People who are eligible to receive general assistance must look for work if they are able-bodied; and if they are disabled, they have to apply for disability, she said. Her office must follow all state rules and regulations for general assistance, and the state monitors what her office does and reimburses the city 50 percent for the costs.

People seeking general assistance need not be city residents, although a bill in the Legislature seeks a requirement that a person be in the state 180 days before applying.

“They don’t have to live in Waterville a period of time?” asked Councilor Nathaniel White, D-Ward 2.

His comment prompted Councilor Dana Bushee, D-Ward 6, to offer clarification.

“If you’re poor, you’re not packing up a moving van and moving, OK?” she said.

As sometimes occurs at council meetings, city officials talked about the fact that Waterville is a service center that has a district court, a U.S. Social Security Administration office, two hospitals and two colleges, as well as access to mental health services and other resources. The city’s population of about 16,000 more than doubles during the daytime when people come in to work, shop, eat and recreate, but the taxpayers pay for the brunt of police, fire and other services.

Mayor Nick Isgro asked Fossa whether there is a concern that Waterville attracts people seeking general assistance because of the services offered.

“Do you see that as a high percentage of people that we’re dealing with?” he asked.

Fossa said no, but added that his question was well-intended, as a person might wonder if it is easier to get help in one town rather than another.

She said there are very poor people living in Waterville, and for some, it is easier to be within walking distance of a doctor, food, the bank and various appointments.

Bushee noted that about 50 percent of the housing in the city is rental units, and the homeless shelter does more than just house people in need; it also connects them to resources, helps them find housing and jobs and gives them skills to remain independent.

“We’re not consistently, hopefully, creating a cycle of abuse with this,” she said.

Meanwhile, Councilor Rosemary Winslow, D-Ward 3, said she helped found the shelter 25 years ago and is a founding member of the Evening Sandwich Program at the Universalist Unitarian Church on Silver Street. The program will celebrate its 26th year this year, she said.

The first night of the program, five meals were served; now about 3,000 a month are given out, she said.

The workers in Fossa’s office float at City Hall, meaning they work in the assessing, finance and other offices, as needed.

“I’m the only one in the department sometimes,” Fossa said. “They’re floating to other departments, which happens a lot.”

She said her office is busy and the caseworkers work hard. Some clients do not understand the requirements they must meet as they receive general assistance, so workers must spend more time with them, Fossa said.

“You may have to work with a client a half hour. I’ve seen a caseworker with a client three hours.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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