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Lines Drawn on Montana Health Care Budget

State's health director urged lawmakers to consider the human consequences of slashing funding

HELENA — A budget rift between Democrats and Republicans over health care spending began unfolding Wednesday, as the state’s health director urged lawmakers to consider the human consequences of slashing funding from health budgets, especially in services for seniors and people with disabilities.

Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee want to roll back Gov. Steve Bullock’s requested health budget by $93 million. More than half of that amount — about $50 million — would be drawn from senior services and long-term care for the disabled.

“I am deeply concerned by the legislatively proposed budget,” Sheila Hogan, director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services, told the committee, which is holding hearings on the state budget this week.

Hogan urged lawmakers to consider the human costs, as she listed examples of how a reduction in outlays could affect families and communities.

“The options and consequences of these cuts are real,” Hogan said.

“The budget will dramatically impair the services we can provide to seniors and those with disabilities in Montana.”

Committee Chairwoman Rep. Nancy Ballance admonished Hogan for using scare tactics and took umbrage with anyone characterizing spending rollbacks as budget cuts.

Ballance said Republicans were just as concerned about the people being served, but tough decisions will have to be made to balance the state budget.

Lower-than-expected revenues, including lower receipts from oil and gas taxes, are prompting Montana officials to more deeply scrutinize spending. The budget woes loom as a sticking point in crafting a spending plan and will fuel debate over an infrastructure package.

Staving off cuts to health care programs is a top priority among Democrats, said Rep. Jenny Eck of Helena, the House minority leader.

“We know it’s going to be ugly,” said Eck, calling the Republican-drafted budget untenable.

Legislators are planning to meet Wednesday with state officials and insurance industry representatives to discuss a Republican plan in Washington to replace the federal Affordable Care Act.

The possible repeal of major provisions of the act served as a backdrop for Montana Democrats in holding the line on safety net health programs.

“It’s irresponsible to scare people into thinking that their services are going to be gone,” Ballance said. “We are not reducing from what they had before. We should not scare people.”

Some took issue with Ballance’s interpretation.

“To be honest, what is happening is scary,” said Travis Hoffman, who is physically disabled and works for Summit Independent Living in Missoula. “And not talking about it doesn’t make it any less scary or any less real.”

Services offered by the state health department allow Hoffman “to go to the bathroom, take a shower and put my pants on and get in my chair,” he said.

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