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Maine Lawmakers Scrutinize DHHS Shortfall
12/13/2011   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

The first skirmish in a protracted battle over welfare cuts got underway today at the State House as lawmakers began an inquiry into a projected $120 million budget shortfall. The LePage administration has proposed sweeping cuts to Medicaid services in order to offset what it says is alarming growth in the number of Mainers seeking state health care benefits. Democrats have expressed doubts about the adminstration's numbers, but the governor appears to be right on the money.

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Democratic leaders had expressed skepticism that the governor's projected $120 million dollar Medicaid shortfall in the current fiscal year is a reliable number. But Chris Nolan, an analyst for the non-partisan legislative Office of Fiscal and Program Review, eliminated all doubt.

"We can see just looking at the general funds that there clearly does appear to be a shortfall, and we can see a path that that shortfall could get to $120 million, which is estimated by the department," Nolan said.

That was reassuring for state Rep. Patrick Flood, a Winthrop Republican who co-chairs the Appropriations Committee.

"Well, the objective of the first part of today's meeting is to develop understanding about the numbers that the administration has given us and to have a good solid discussion about them," Flood says. "I don't think they should be perceived as lack of confidence necessarily. But it's to build the confidence that's necessary to go forward--if we're going to be making significant policy kind of reviews, we want to be sure that we're doing that based on a solid foundation."

Those policy reviews involve three days of public hearings this week on Gov. Paul LePage's efforts to curb spending for Medicaid, known in the state as MaineCare. The governor says the number of MaineCare programs have outgrown Maine taxpayers' ability to pay for them.

State officials say Medicaid accounts for 21 percent of state spending, up from 12.4 percent in 1998. Since 2002, Medicaid enrollment has grown by 78 percent while the state's population has grown only 7 percent. Budget analysts told Flood that the adminsitration was already borrowing from fourth quarter allocations to pay for Medicaid expenses in the second quarter of the fiscal year that expires next June.

The governor wants to cut Medicaid services for a number of groups, including childless adults and 19- and 20-year-olds. He also wants to eliminate a number of optional services, and that's raised the concerns of lobbyists like John Hennessy, of the Maine Chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons, which is fighting to save a low-cost drugs-for-the-elderly program.

"I know that the cuts proposed by the governor to seniors cannot stand--the 65,000 people who stand to lose coverage," Hennessey says. "We're not just talking prescription drug coverage, which is important, but Medicare Part A and Part B is access to physicians as well. Folks who are needing medical care are not going to go away. They're going to go to the emergency rooms, they're going to get more expensive care. This doesn't make any sense to us."

Despite what the committee heard from its own staff, some lawmakers continued to have trouble justifying the contradictory numbers that Commissioner Mary Mayhew has given the panel in recent months. Those concerns prompted an exchange between Democratic state Rep. Margaret Rotundo, of Lewiston and Mayhew.

"Commissioner Mayhew, you spoke to analysis up to this point," Rotundo said. "We were given the figure $70 million, then we were given the figure $120 million. How can we be confident that these figures that you're presenting us with today are the right figures, given that it's sort of been a moving target? How do we know that, if, as you said, your analysis is continuing, you won't be coming back to us in two weeks with a different figure for us?"

"What I can say to you today is that my charge to this group has been to challenge every single assumption they've made, to look at every single number that they've identified, through every possible lens," Mayhew responded. "And it's through that exhaustive process that my confidence has increased in this shortfall analysis."

Public hearings on the proposed Medicaid cuts will get underway tomorrow, affecting a variety of programs, including elder services, developmental disabilities, and children's mental health services.


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