Montana Health Director Cries Foul Over Budget Process

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Republican budget writers are proposing deep cuts to some of Montana’s health programs and also plan to refuse federal funding for others, even when there is no apparent savings to the state.

The Republicans’ two-year budget proposal for the Department of Public Health and Human Services slashes programs dealing with family planning, health insurance for needy children, tobacco prevention, prescription drugs for seniors, chemical dependency treatment and overtime for 24-hour health facilities.

The proposed budget, under consideration Thursday by the House Appropriations Committee, aims to cut back state and federal spending in the face of tough economic times, Republican leaders said.

But DPHHS director Anna Whiting Sorrell, clearly frustrated, said the spending plan for 2012-2013 will not give the department the resources to meet its commitments, even though the money is available to avoid the cuts.

“This is a facade. They really are scaring Montanans. Why would you do that? Why would you do that when the revenue is there?” she said.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Republican legislative leaders are at odds over how much state revenue will be available for the next budget period. Legislative analysts last month increased their projection by about $100 million, but that’s still less than the extra $164 million Schweitzer says is available.

The GOP plan for the health department doesn’t just target state money — it also cuts millions in federal health spending.

Laurie Francis, executive director of the Montana Primary Care Association, pleaded for the Appropriations Committee to release $35 million in federal money for the state’s 15 community health centers and clinics to keep electronic records.

Francis said the $35 million doesn’t require a state match, and Montana would be the only state to refuse the money.

Republican Rep. John Esp of Big Timber said the country is in dire financial straits and state legislators have to address it by declining federal money.

“Every one of those federal dollars that we spend, a taxpayer somewhere has to come up with,” Esp said. “A drop in the bucket in the right direction is a drop in the bucket in the right direction.”

Tara Veazey of the Montana Budget and Policy Center said the money Montana refuses will not go to reduce the federal deficit — it has already been appropriated and will go to other states instead of Montana.

“What I find really difficult to understand is the rejection of purely federal funds that don’t save the state $1, and yet will result in harmful effects to citizens and communities across this state and harm our economic recovery,” Veazey said.

The biennium budget for the health department being considered by the committee is $3.7 billion in state and federal funds, which is about $55 million less than Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposal. It represents more than 40 percent of the planned state budget for 2012-2013, which the committee is tackling this week.

The GOP proposal is $642 million more than the department’s current budget, but most of that increase is due to Medicaid services.

The Republican budget plan for the department would seek to reduce personal assistance services to the state’s four Independent Living Centers. The centers provide services that people such as wheelchair-bound Travis Hoffman said he depends on to get out of bed, eat and shower.

Hoffman told the committee that legislative cuts in 2003 mandated that those using the services could have no more than three showers per week. This budget proposal would require people who use those services to eat all their meals for the week within four hours.

“That’s 11.5 minutes per meal. I don’t know how many of you can eat every meal in 11.5 minutes, but when you can’t even make your own meal, you definitely can’t do it in 11.5 minutes,” Hoffman said.

The budget plan also would privatize the veterans home in Columbia Falls, a state-run institution that once served Civil War veterans. The goal is to get spending in line with other nursing homes, Republican Rep. Don Roberts said.

Groups have contacted Republican Sen. Dave Lewis of Helena expressing interest in taking over management of the home, which now has 90 residents, Roberts said.

Democratic Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh of Helena questioned cutting funding to the veterans home based on a phone call, with no certainty that there will be a bidder for the home. His concern was echoed by the homes superintendent, Joren Undereahl.

“With respect to the veterans in a 115-year-old state institution, that they do deserve a little bit more introspection and study on whether this is truly in the best interest in veterans that have served the state of Montana and our country before we take such a big leap,” Undereahl said.

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