Panel cuts $93 million from DPPHS budget; critics warn cuts will harm seniors

Bozeman Daily Chronicle – January 12, 2017

A legislative appropriations panel voted Wednesday to cut the budget of the Department of Public Health and Human Services by $93.4 million in all funds over the next two years, with the largest portion coming in the senior and long-term care program.

The motion, approved 4-3 by the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, sets a starting point for the panel’s budget work. All Republican members but one voted for the motion, while the panel’s two Democrats, joined by Rep. Jon Knokey, R-Bozeman, voted against it.

Other appropriations subcommittees have made similar budget-cutting efforts at the direction of Republican chairs.

Subcommittee Chair Rep. Rob Cook, R-Conrad, made the motion to reduce the budget.

Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, protested that committee members and the public weren’t given a chance to review the proposed cuts ahead of time. She called it “a ridiculous way to vote.”

Cook said the reductions for the Department of Public Health and Human Services are $42.2 million more than the $50.3 million in reductions in the agency recommended by Gov. Steve Bullock.

The cuts Wednesday included an additional $42 million in the senior and long-term care budget on top of the $10 million cuts that Bullock proposed.

The additional cuts drew criticism later from the director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services and representatives of AARP Montana and the Montana Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes and other facilities.

“The additional, unnecessary cuts made today will strip vulnerable Montanans of critical community services, putting Montana families, seniors, and children at risk,” DPHHS Director Sheila Hogan said.

In a later interview, Cook said, “We’ve established a starting point, and this is day one of the budget process. It’s our plan to not have to cut again. Barring a very adverse revenue estimate, it will be our intention to build the budget back up to legislative priorities, not executive priorities.”

Cook said he decided to make the cuts to the senior and long-term care budget for one reason.

“Long-term care has a history of underspending their appropriation,” Cook said. “It’s the same reason the governor picked it.”

The state agency said its Senior and Long Term Care Division provides a number of services to help thousands of Montana seniors, including those in nursing homes, respite care, home-delivered and group meals served at senior centers, hospice and personal assistance.

Claudia Clifford, director of advocacy for AARP Montana, said the people who qualify for senior and long-term care are those who qualify for Medicaid and have spent their assets down to $2,000, or those who are physically disabled and qualify.

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“I understand that we have a revenue situation, but it’s a temporary revenue situation over the next two years,” she said. “There are people who qualify for long-term care who are in a very fragile situation.”

Clifford called the budget cuts “very significant” for an aging population group in the state and said the reductions “should be of concern to all Montanans.”

Rose Hughes, executive director of the Montana Health Care Association, said, “Cuts this size, there’s no way to describe them except devastating. You cannot cut that amount of money out of it without doing serious harm to nursing home patients. It has to affect the quality. It could affect the access to services.”

Hughes also called the reductions financially damaging to nursing homes, leading to “a bad business climate. It could hurt facilities and their employees,” she said.

Heather O’Loughlin, co-director of the Montana Budget and Policy Center, said the group opposed the reduction. She said the cut will affect some of Montana’s most vulnerable people and could result in the loss of federal matching funds.

She said Gov. Bullock has taken a balanced approach combining budget cuts and revenue measures that will make the tax code more fair.

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