Portland mayor hopes for alternatives to LePage's DHHS cuts

PORTLAND — As legislators in Augusta continue to work on solving state budget woes centered around a $221 million Department of Heath and Human Services shortfall, city officials remain on edge about how local services to the poor might be effected.

“All the uncertainty that existed a week ago continues,” Mayor Michael Brennan said.

Brennan met Feb. 1 with Gov. Paul LePage after holding his first press conference as mayor on Jan. 30 to warn that Portland would be disproportionately impacted by LePage’s proposed cuts to the DHHS budget.

Brennan said he told LePage the DHHS shortfall should be looked at within the context of the larger state budget, and that tax initiatives on cigarettes and alcohol, paired with postponing tax cuts slated for next year, could make up the difference.

But he failed to make headway and the only suggestion that the governor intended to look into, he said, is managed health care.

Now, Brennan said he is focusing his energy directly on state lawmakers.

“I think some people on the Appropriations Committee have realized that there are not going to be waivers as the governor says,” Brennan said, referencing a disputed plan to obtain federal exemptions that would allow some of LePage’s proposed cuts. “My feeling is that everything is very fluid.”

As the debate continues, though, the governor seems no closer to resolving the issue. On Monday, he issued a statement expressing frustration with the Appropriations Committee.

“I was presented a plan last Thursday,” which the governor would not approve or refuse, the statement said. “However, their plan has drastically changed since then. The latest proposal eliminates nearly all the structural changes that are necessary to make our welfare system affordable and sustainable.”

LePage took particular offense at the committee’s reluctance to eliminate health coverage for childless adults. That coverage is essential to vulnerable people in Portland and elsewhere, said Jon Bradley, associate director of the Preble Street shelter.

“Those individuals are single adults, without families, who are next up to lose out,” Bradley said. "If you take those people off MaineCare, who’s going to pick up the expense?”

On Jan. 30, Brennan claimed the DHHS cuts would result in a $2 million loss of funds for the city and a $20 million loss for medical institutions, including $6 million alone at Mercy Hospital.

The impact of the cuts would reach beyond basic health care, Bradley said. For those with substance abuse and mental health issues, the cuts will eliminate the ability for people who want help to get it, he said.

“That’s just going to contribute to people’s homelessness and instability,” Bradley said. “We worry about growing numbers” at city shelters, which have been overflowing for more than a year, he said.

The budget cuts will also effect Headstart programs, which provide young childhood education for working families, said John Shoos, the senior vice president of community impact for United Way of Greater Portland.

“That’s what’s so devastating about the proposals,” he said. “They cut across all layers of vulnerable people.”

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.