Women protest cuts to new-mother assistance program

AUGUSTA — Women who have benefited from a program that sends public health employees to the homes of new mothers told lawmakers Friday that it would be a mistake to eliminate state funding for the program.

“I have a child with special medical needs, and thanks to this program, she is still developmentally on track,” said Margaret Rodrigue of China.

The program could lose all of its state funding — $9.2 million over two years — in cuts to the Fund for a Healthy Maine proposed in Gov. Paul LePage‘s two-year, $6.1 billion budget.

The fund pays for home visits to about 15 percent of the state’s first-time mothers, said Jim Beougher, director of the Office of Children and Family Services in the Department of Health and Human Services. About 3,000 families are visited each year, and 86 percent of them receive multiple visits, he said.

One-third of them have annual incomes of less than $10,000.

While fewer families will be served if the program is eliminated, Beougher said, there are six other home visiting programs across the state, including early Head Start and public health nursing.

Also, the state will get $667,000 in federal funds this summer to continue the existing program on a limited basis.

Katie Bunten of Lewiston said the home visiting program helped her regain custody of her child, continue her education, own a business and start a new family.

“Even though I am a mom of three wonderful children, and in charge of my life, I still need my home visitor,” she said. “She is my rock, and my informational parental highway.”

The home visitation program is one of several cuts proposed to the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which is supported by tobacco settlement money. LePage is proposing to transfer about $18 million a year from the fund to the state Medicaid program, said Kathleen Newman, his deputy chief of staff.

The tobacco settlement program has about $54 million in annual funding.

Newman said Gov. Angus King, an independent, and Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, both transferred money out of the fund to help balance the budget. The difference is that instead of making across-the-board cuts, LePage is proposing to eliminate entire programs.

“Rather than make crude, across-the-board cuts to all programs, we kept top priority programs and eliminated others that we simply could not afford to fund,” she said.

And, because of growing use of the state’s Medicaid program, Newman said, more money may have to be transferred out of the fund to cover the cost.

Other proposed program cuts include eliminating a school nurse consultant position, eliminating a drug court sentencing diversion coordinator, taking $4.3 million from the state’s substance abuse program and taking $4.3 million from Dirigo Health. Also, more than $400,000 would be cut from family planning services.

That $400,000 cut to family planning, when added to a $300,000 cut to funding elsewhere in the budget, would mean a loss of about half of state funding for those services, said Kate Brogan, vice president for public affairs for the Family Planning Association of Maine.

She said the cuts would mean the closure of 12 mostly rural clinics, including five in Washington County and one in Skowhegan. Hours would be reduced in eight clinics, including the one in Waterville.

Guy Cousins, director of the Maine Office of Substance Abuse, said the cuts to his program would cause the closure of 10 of the state’s 13 residential drug treatment facilities.

William Henry, a former client of St. Francis House in Auburn, said he turned his life around because of the program.

“As a result of going through this program, I am now self-employed and pay taxes,” he said.

Some changes are expected in a new proposal that will be offered by LePage, said Jenny Boyden, a chief financial officer for the Department of Health and Human Services.

For example, the budget proposes to eliminate three public safety inspectors from the Fire Marshal’s Office. That would reduce the inspection division’s staff by one-third and leave only one mechanical-ride inspector for the entire state, she said.

Fire Marshal John Dean said that although he did not have details Friday, the administration is working to find a different funding source to pay for the positions.

To start the day, more than 150 people participated in a press conference in the Hall of Flags to protest the proposed cuts. By 10 a.m., 145 people had signed up to testify.

The demonstration of opposition was similar to those at the State House last week, when hundreds of people turned out for three consecutive days to protest proposed cuts to state workers’ and teachers’ retirement and health benefits.




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