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DHHS Budget Proposal Sparks Moral Debate

Rallied by a variety of Patient Advocacy Groups, hundreds of protestors converged on the capital building in Augusta on Wednesday, December 14th to express their dissatisfaction with the Governor’s proposed Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) supplemental budget.  The budget, which was proposed last week, aims to cut $220 million dollars over two years from state health insurance and care spending, in order to address long-standing structural deficits in the department.

Speaking before the Appropriations and Financial Services committee (AFS) on December 13th, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew and her staff explained in detail the nature of the shortfalls, and the fact that Federal Stimulus spending had been used for the last several years to obscure otherwise structural deficits in MaineCare and other programs.  According to information provided by DHHS and the Governor, MaineCare has been running a yearly deficit, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, since eligibility standards were loosened in 2003.  The reasons for this are varied, and include increasing enrollment and utilization of services, carry-over payments from previous years, and the decreasing willingness of the federal government to reimburse for optional services which MaineCare offers.

The protestors, many of them who will be giving testimony to the AFS during the public hearing on December 14th, 15th, and 16th, have expressed outrage at the Governors proposed cuts, which would rollback many of the changes put forward in the Baldacci Administration which have added more than 160,000 to the MaineCare rolls since 2002.

The Maine Council of Churches (MCC), which represents more than 550 individual churches in the state, will be holding prayer vigils in the capital building for what they call a “moral budget.” The statement of conscience regarding the budget cuts which MCC has released reads in part, “a fundamental moral measure of any economy is how the most vulnerable are faring.  We cannot allow thousands of Mainers to lose health (insurance) coverage at a time when many are also struggling to put food on the table, find housing, or just keep warm through the winter.”

Leslie Manning, Vice President of the MCC and the appointed denominational representative of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), was asked to explain why MCC advocates that the moral obligation to be the servicer of these needs rests with the government, and not simply with the people.  In response she said, “In a society such as ours, the people control the government and decide what policies it implements.  The people who make up our membership have made the decision that the final responsibility for caring for the most-needy rests with government.  Therefore, we are here today advocating for that position, and have taken this position during many similar rallies since our founding in 1938.”

Carroll Conley Jr., Executive Director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, when asked where the responsibility lies for providing these services, Conley said,

“We support seeking to make government as efficient and accountable as possible, so those who truly need it can receive help. The Christian Civic League’s mission is to bring a biblical perspective to public policy. (…)

The Bible’s teaching of compassion emphasizes deliverance for those suffering from difficult circumstances. No matter how well-intended, government welfare beyond the local level often works against the interests of needy people by reinforcing dependence.  (…)

Historically, local communities, civic organizations, and churches have been much more effective at meeting the true goal of compassion.”

Other organizations that participated in the rally and urged their membership to come to Augusta included EngageMaine, Planned Parenthood of Maine, AARP Maine, the Maine Developmental Disabilities Council, Veterans for Peace, the Advocacy Initiative Network of Maine, and Maine Can Do Better, which represents more than 150 progressive organizations in the state.