Looking for DHHS funding solution

For the last few weeks, I have mentioned that the legislature has been told that we have to make cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), but that we have not gotten a clear idea of the real numbers that make these cuts necessary.

Over this last week, we finally have some greater amount of clarity regarding those numbers from DHHS. While they have not been verified by the independent Office of Fiscal and Policy Review, there is a range that can be agreed upon, and the numbers are big. For this fiscal year, DHHS will face a shortfall of between $100 million and $124 million, and of this amount between $19 million and $48 million are non-recurring or “one-time” costs.

While we need to further refine these numbers, their size means that some cuts will be necessary, and that those cuts will be undoubtedly be painful, I have strong reservations about the approach the governor is taking, however. First, I believe that just looking at DHHS for a solution is the wrong way to go. Any problem like this should be looked at across the whole of state government, not just one department, especially where the one-time costs are concerned.

Another problem I have with his proposal is that some of the cuts he has called for require waivers from the federal government. The federal government pays for approximately two-thirds of the MaineCare program, and in some cases we have to get their approval to end programs or the state will face major financial penalties. Maine has no assurances that this approval will be given, and it seems that we should get their agreement before banking any savings in those areas.

Finally, the proposal doesn’t take into account the cost to the economy of these cuts. As proposed, nearly 4,500 jobs would be lost, including jobs in hospitals, doctor’s offices, and many other health related facilities. These are largely good-paying jobs, and there would be an associated loss of state income and sales tax revenues as a result.

We need to come up with a plan to get through this current crisis with as little permanent dislocation as possible and then look at thoughtful, long-term solutions to get and keep the DHHS budget in balance. Other states are doing creative things with cost control in their Medicaid programs and we need to do the same.

As I have said before, I am heartened by the fact that, so far at least, the legislature is working in a bipartisan fashion to come up with thoughtful solutions to this problem. There is an old saying about the way things work at the Capitol, “the governor proposes, but the legislature disposes.” The governor can make suggestions, but the legislature is responsible for turning them into law. I’m sure it will be difficult, but as long as we are able to work together, we will get through this current situation.

Please contact me if you have any thoughts on this issue. You can reach me at my office in Augusta at 287-1515 or send me an e-mail to my website, www.mainesenate.org/diamond
Senator Bill Diamond is a resident of Windham, and serves the District 12 communities of Casco, Frye Island, Raymond, Standish, Windham and Hollis.

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