Changes coming to DHHS budget proposal?

AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers appear to be drafting a significant amendment to Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed supplemental budget for the Department of Health and Human Services, according to a letter sent late last week by the chairs of the Appropriations Committee.

In the letter dated Jan. 6, Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, and Rep. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, addressed their counterparts on the Health and Human Services Committee about attaching a committee amendment to the governor’s budget.

“We are now contemplating the tremendous amount of work involved in drafting a committee amendment to this bill and are hoping you will agreed to target your report-back to the Appropriations Committee to the following key areas,” the letter reads.

The areas are:

  • Initiatives and language parts related to the Fund for Healthy Maine.
  • The initiative related to the Low-Cost Drugs to Maine’s Elderly program. The governor’s budget repeals that program.
  • The initiative related to the Head Start program.
  • The initiatives identified by DHHS as requiring a federal waiver — specifically eliminating MaineCare coverage for 19 and 20-year-olds.
  • Identify proposals for savings within DHHS to replace the restoration of cuts to private non-medical institutions, or PNMIs.

Last month, LePage released a supplemental budget for DHHS that reduced its state funding by $220 million over the next year and a half. There has been much opposition to the cuts, especially those affecting facilities for the elderly and those with disabilities.

Last week, Republicans said they couldn’t go along with the governor’s proposed cuts to PNMIs, but the letter indicated they have additional concerns.

The Jan. 6 letter sets a Jan. 19 deadline for a report back from Health and Human Services Committee members to Appropriations Committee members.

It was not clear Monday how much of the letter’s contents, if any, would be addressed at an Appropriations Committee scheduled for Tuesday.

The governor’s office was not aware of the letter on Monday, according to spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett. All along, she has said that LePage would love to hear any alternatives to his proposal, but so far none have been made public.

In an interview last week with a Portland TV station on Wednesday, the governor offered an alternative to the PNMI cuts, which total $60 million.

“If they give me authority over the Maine State Housing Authority we can fix the housing portion through the Maine State Housing Authority,” LePage said.

The lawmakers’ letter seems to reject that idea since they are seeking alternatives only within DHHS.

Bennett also has said that the governor recognized that an alternative would be needed to the PNMI cuts and pointed to the $39 million set aside in the budget stabilization fund.

House and Senate Democrats have strong objections to most of the governor’s budget proposal but so far have been reluctant to offer an alternative until they have better numbers.

The letter highlights what appears to be growing disconnect between the executive and legislative branches on the DHHS budget.

Last week, members of the Appropriations Committee called off a meeting scheduled for Friday, citing a need for more time. The governor’s office considered that a slight on DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, who indicated she was prepared to present her findings.

Lawmakers have been frustrated by what they characterize as a lack of clear information from the department about the size of the gap between its spending and its allocation of state funds.

Language in the letter seems to indicate that the Appropriations Committee chairs hope to address the DHHS budget shortfall within that department, not as a part of the overall state budget, an idea Democrats have floated.