In a public hearing that will help shape state spending on issues of health care, Mainers from an array of backgrounds urged legislators on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs (AFA) Committee Monday to use the unprecedented surplus to meet many outstanding needs.
Among those needs, Mainers told the AFA committee as well as members of the Health and Human Services Committee that the state’s projected $822 revenue surplus is an opportunity to ensure that everyone has access to health care, including many immigrants who in 2011 were barred from receiving Medicaid and other social supports by former Gov. Paul LePage.
“I am a parent who takes care of a disabled child who lost his Medicare coverage at age 21,” said Lewiston resident Bobe Moussa. “We have to spend a lot of time trying to satisfy his needs and giving him undivided attention. Now, we are obliged to pay from our pocket even though it’s extremely difficult and we need our state to help us.”
Last year, lawmakers passed a two-year budget that included a partial reinstatement of those supports, with MaineCare and Children’s Health Insurance Program benefits restored to those who are pregnant and people under 21 regardless of immigration status. Advocates urged lawmakers to undue LePage’s legacy and restore access to MaineCare for adult immigrants.
“You have the opportunity to be completely on the right side of history,” said Lewiston resident Jim Lysen, a member of the Maine People’s Alliance, of which Beacon is a project. “You can end a harmful, discriminatory policy and restore coverage for all low-income Mainers regardless of their immigration status. It’s the least we can do for our new Mainer sisters and brothers, who have disproportionately put their own health at risk as frontline, essential workers.”
Last month, Gov. Janet Mills unveiled her budget proposal that included using half of the surplus, $411 million, to send 800,000 Mainers a one-time payment of $500 — an idea proposed by Republicans.
The supplemental budget is now in the hands of AFA members who will use the governor’s proposal as a framework to draft their own plan, with input from the various committees. Mills will either sign or send back the Legislature’s proposal.
While the governor proposed $12 million to increase pay for child care workers and $30 million to pay direct support workers who care for physically and mentally disabled people 125% of minimum wage, child and labor advocates urged AFA members to address chronic recruitment and retention issues within the Maine Department Health and Human Services due to noncompetitive wages as well as staffing shortages in child outpatient care.
“We think the proposed budget misses an opportunity to address the many urgent needs in the delivery of quality services to Maine people. Crises in the delivery of services exist throughout all the departments in Maine state government,” said Dean Staffieri, president of Maine Service Employees Association-SEIU 1989, which represents DHHS workers. “Now is the time to address these recruitment and retention problems.”
Mainers also urged lawmakers to shift from addressing mental illness and substance use disorder through incarceration by funding programs that are in danger of being left out of the budget.
Unfunded proposals include $6.6 million for DHHS to increase MaineCare reimbursement rates for targeted case management services, including treatment for substance use disorder; $133,000 to enhance critically-needed treatment for children with mental health challenges; and $9.2 million for resources for home and community treatment for almost 700 children on wait lists.
Advocates said too many Maine children and adults are suffering without access to treatment, enduring months-long wait lists, and languishing in emergency departments and jails because there are no other options.
“You’ll hear from providers about the backlog in the emergency rooms, the ever increasing waitlists and the difficulty balancing budgets with stagnant rates,” said Hannah Longley of the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “you won’t hear about the person who sat with depression for months waiting for an intake only for the wait to be too long, you won’t be able to hear from the individuals whose illness became terminal when they lose their hope.”
She added “I could tell you hundreds of stories from family and individuals who are languishing waiting for treatment in the programs that are before you today.”
State Rep. Lori Gramlich (D-Old Orchard Beach) is the sponsor of one of the behavioral health bills that passed last year and is awaiting funding. She encouraged AFA members to include those policies in their budget proposal.
“Presently, we have over 3,000 children waiting for outpatient care in Maine and 650 children awaiting home and community-based treatment, and we continue to have 70 children placed out of state for residential treatment,” Gramlich said. “It’s very difficult to look them in the eye, especially given the surplus, and tell them we can’t address their desperate need for help.”
Top photo: Screenshot from Maine Equal Justice video
Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maine Beacon, March 1, 2022, https://mainebeacon.com/lawmakers-urged-to-clear-waitlists-fund-behavioral-services-and-immigrant-health/