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MaineCare Recipients to Soon Feel Pinch of Divisive Budget Cuts
05/18/2012   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Maine Republicans are claiming victory after state Medicaid spending was reduced by $200 million during the recently concluded legislative session. But advocates for the poor, and minority Democrats, claim the state dollars saved will be offset by higher costs for those Mainers who are privately insured. They also say higher local property taxes will result, as those living on the edge turn to public assistance in ever-increasing numbers. Still, Republicans say Mainers seeking social services must learn to live with a smaller safety net.

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When the Legislative session concluded at about 3 a.m. Thursday, assistant House Majority Leader Andre Cushing looked back at reductions made in Medicaid programs operated by the state Department of Health and Human Services, known in Maine as MaineCare.

The Hampden Republican says he will proudly run for election to the Maine Senate on a record of reducing state health care spending. Those cuts amounted to $200 million, and eliminated health care benefits for 34,000 people, or siginifcantly reduced the level of services they receive.

Cushing says that, in most instances, the cuts affect people who need to make better choices. "Where is the responsibility that people should take for their own lives--their family's lives--when you create a system that encourages folks to use government assistance rather than the resources that are available to the rest of us in the private sector?" Cushing says.

That's the kind of thinking that Cushing and other Republicans relied on when they decided to change the eligibility requirements for a mother or father with two children for health care benefits. Prior to the adoption of the budget cuts, a parent--or parents--earning about $25,000 a year would be able to receive those health care benefits. Now if that same family earns more than $20,000 a year, they will not qualify for the program because they make too much money.

At Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group for poor families, Executive director Sara Gagne-Holmes says cuts to the programs will cause more than 14,000 parents to lose health care benefits. She says reasoning like Cushing's fails to recognize the economic hardships these families face daily.

"Let's consider the fact of how expensive health care coverage in the state of Maine is," Gagne-Holmes says. "A family of three making $400 a week is not going to be able to afford coverage on the individual market, even though it's just a single adult--any coverage that is worthwhile is going to be out of their grasp."

Rather than focus on the number of low-paying jobs in Maine, the high cost associated with daycare facilities for children and the transportation costs associated with living in a large rural state, Gagne-Holmes says Republican policies are driven by a desire to reach budget outcomes, and, as a result, will actually make it more difficult for people to find jobs.

And she says Republicans are sending a new message to those on the bottom of the income scale. "If you are low-income, you are the problem," Gagne-Holmes says. "It's no longer 'poverty is the focus' and I think that's a shame because it's our policy decisions that have resulted in current numbers of people who are struggling to get by."

During legislative debate on the DHHS budget cuts this week, nearly $2.7 million was ultimately cut from DHHS home health visitation. Gagne-Holmes said will mean 750 families will lose services. State Rep. Anne Graham, a North Yarmouth Democrat, says the program served families with infants such as Ethan Henderson of Arundel, who died after he was allegedly shaken to death by his 23-year-old father, Gordon Collins-Faunce.

"No baby should lose its life because services have been cut," Graham told her colleagues. "Home visitiation and Head Start make a huge difference in childrens' and families' lives. Let's not have more baby Ethans."

Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney, a Springvale Republican, says arguments like Graham's cross the line when it comes to rational discussion of the state's health care strategies.

"You know, that happens, you get emotional during a debate," he says. "Because we're making these changes, would that have had any impact on that? No," Courtney says. "We want to deal with the facts and try to not get too emotional when we make the decisions. You have to be compassionate, but you can't make decisions based on simple emotion."

The effect of the new state budget cuts will begin to be felt after the fiscal year starts on July 1.


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