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MT legislative panel continues to block cuts to services for poor, disabled

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Belgrade parent Shelly Dowdle Belgrade parent Shelly Dowdle
HELENA -

A legislative committee Monday continued to block more than $20 million in proposed cuts to medical services for the poor and disabled in Montana – although it’s unclear whether the action will ultimately stave off the cuts.

The Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee voted 7-1 to continue until at least November its objection to Bullock administration rules enacting the cuts, which affect services ranging from nursing-home care for the elderly to case management for the mentally ill.

The panel, which heard more than two hours of emotional testimony urging it to block the cuts, then will decide whether it can extend its objection further.

Meanwhile, the Bullock administration said it’s still planning to implement the cuts Jan. 1 -- unless any formal action stops it.

“The objection today does not overrule the bill passed by the Legislature, which mandated these cuts and in fact makes the (administration’s) job much more difficult, as the state faces additional proposed spending reductions,” said Sheila Hogan, director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Hogan said the state plans to cut rates paid to Medicaid providers by 3 percent, in response to a state law that directs widespread budget cuts because tax revenue didn’t meet a June 30 target.

Cuts outlined in the law also would slash state spending on some mental-health services.

These reductions are in addition to what’s expected to be much deeper cuts the Bullock administration will consider next month, to balance the state budget in the face of lagging tax revenue and budget-busting firefighting costs.

For these latter cuts, Bullock has asked most state agencies to submit proposed 10 percent reductions to their overall budget.

Scores of health-care providers, parents and patients testified Monday at the Capitol, urging the legislative committee to continue its objections and block the first round of cuts.

They said the cuts will devastate case-management services for the mentally ill, cutting them by nearly 40 percent.

“The intent of this bill was to assist in balancing the budget,” said Dirk Beccari of Consumer Direct Care Network of Missoula. “The effect of this bill will be to so gut a service that our most vulnerable, innocent persons and neediest families will no longer have the assistance of someone to help with their needs in trying and difficult times.”

Shelly Dowdle of Belgrade, who has two autistic sons, said she didn’t understand how the state could cut money for services that so many people need and depend on.

“My son is on the waiting list (for care),” she said. “My husband and I could be dead before he gets to the top of the list. We don’t have anyone who can take care of him. If he doesn’t take his medications, go to the doctor, he will die. That’s how it is.”

Health-care providers said the Bullock administration should work with them to find a different way to meet budget targets, and preserve services as much as possible.

Those who testified at the hearing also referenced the larger cuts possibly coming in the future, and said the Legislature should consider reconvening and passing state tax increases or surcharges to avoid the budget cuts to human services.

“I’m here to tell you that I will pay additional taxes,” said Kelly Jepson, also with Consumer Direct Care Network of Missoula. “I’m here to tell you: Raise my taxes.”

About Mike Dennison

MTN Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison joined MTN News in August 2015 after a 23-year career as a newspaper reporter covering Montana politics and state government. While some may believe that politics are boring, Mike firmly believes that's not the case if you tell the story with pizzazz and let people know why the story is important.
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