In his budget proposal last year, Gov. Paul LePage sought sweeping cuts to services for people with mental illness, children with autism and health care for seniors. He fought tooth and nail for his harmful agenda and the Legislature had to override his budget veto to finally stop him.
This year the governor hasn’t submitted a budget, but that hasn’t stopped his attacks on people with disabilities. Instead of using the budget as a weapon, the governor is using his broad executive powers against vulnerable Mainers. The Maine Legislature needs to stop him again.
The year started with the governor’s attempt to slash services for adults with intellectual disabilities. These are people who in the past would have lived their entire lives in institutions but now live at home with appropriate support. The governor proposed a new “one size fits all” assessment that would have dramatically reduced care for these people and left them at risk. There was public outcry against these devastating cuts but the governor and Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew refused to listen and stubbornly plowed ahead. Undeterred, over 1,300 affected citizens, their families and their supporters took the extraordinary step of formally petitioning the Legislature to stop the new rules. All seven Democrats on the Health and Human Services Committee, along with two of our Republican colleagues, agreed to intervene. In the face of this public outrage, the governor and Commissioner Mayhew finally retreated from their plan.
Did the governor and commissioner learn any lessons? Did they get the message that Mainers will not tolerate cuts that put our vulnerable neighbors at risk? Apparently not. Just last week DHHS told over 24,000 Mainers with serious mental illness that they may see their services cut in April. These services support people struggling to stay in their homes and avoid more costly hospitalization and residential services. We heard from people like Alaina, who has major depression and PTSD. Without services, Alaina isolates herself at home and cannot even leave without suffering from panic attacks. And Courtney, whose depression is so severe that she can’t get out to appointments or reliably pay her bills. When these frightened Mainers called DHHS, they received an automated message instructing them to contact their mental health provider. Mental health providers, however, had no warning that thousands of clients would be receiving these upsetting notices.
DHHS is telling Mainers they might be able to get care in other programs. But DHHS told providers last week that it is planning a huge rate cut for those services. These programs already have waitlists. DHHS must know that providers can’t absorb proposed cuts of 25 to 48 percent. DHHS argues that members might be able to get services through its new “behavioral health home” program. However, this program is so new that access to services provided by the program are limited and some parts of Maine have no behavioral health homes at all. Further, the funding provided to run these services is so low that people will receive a greatly reduced level of services if they can get any at all.
It doesn’t stop there. Just last week, DHHS also announced that it was moving ahead with a plan that will result in the closure of four out of Maine’s 12 mental health peer centers. Peer centers are a critical community resource for people struggling with mental illness. They are a valuable lifeline that help people avoid isolation and loneliness. Peer centers help people who have worked their whole lives to remain in the community and stay out of institutions.
It is impossible to understand the reasoning behind the LePage administration’s relentless attacks on Maine’s mental health system. Five years of mismanagement at Riverview Psychiatric Center has left patients and staff at serious risk and put the taxpayers on the hook for $60 million in costs because DHHS can’t meet minimum federal standards. Now the governor has focused his attention on dismantling of outpatient services that are essential to helping people with mental illness achieve wellness and avoid hospitalization.
Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, is serving his second term in the Maine House of Representatives, representing District 34, which encompasses part of Westbrook. He is House chair of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.