LePage diverts funds from DHHS health programs - is his action legal?

 By Ramona du Houx

Gov. Paul LePage’s executive order directs the Department of Health and Human Services to divert funding from mental health services, public health and a program to help low-income seniors buy medicines to other programs. He accuses the Legislature of not funding these programs properly. But in reality, he’s “taking from Peter to pay Paul,” or stealing from DHHS health programs to fund other things. The order also includes a hiring freeze at the state’s mental health institutions in order to create savings.

Many question, “is LePage’s executive order legal?”

Money will be taken out of the Fund for a Healthy Maine, which funds tobacco cessation and anti-obesity programs. Governor John E. Baldacci wanted to ensure these funds continue to go into tobacco cessation, and during his administration teen smoking declined dramatically. And federal law is very strict about how money from the Fund for a Healthy Maine is spent. The fund was created from the1998 legal settlement with the tobacco industry.

Hence according to state law, “any program, expansion of a program, expenditure or transfer authorized by the Legislature using the Fund for a Healthy Maine may not be transferred to the General Fund without specific legislative approval.”

LePage’s hiring freeze for state mental institutions poses problems for the Riverview Psychiatric Center, which has been penalized by the Federal Government for mismanagement and improper staffing. They need to hire new people to get up to standard to receive funding from the federal government. Riverview is home for people with serious, persistent mental illnesses who have been found either not guilty for their crimes due to their illnesses or were found to be unfit to stand trial. 

LePage’s action came after legislative leaders refused to reconvene the Legislature.

“Since Democratic leadership refuses to fund these bills, I have taken action by issuing an executive order to ensure government is being funded in a fiscally responsible manner,” said LePage.

But the truth is that Democrats did properly fund the bills.

LePage made several attempts to defund the Low-Cost Drugs for the Elderly program as well as the Fund for a Healthy Maine but failed to get enough lawmakers to support his cuts.

“These programs have been on Gov. LePage’s chopping block for a long time, and he’s using this manufactured chaos as cover to slash their funding,” said Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond. “He wasn’t able to win support in the Legislature to gut these programs, so he’s abusing his authority to make the cuts by executive order.”

The four new laws LePage wants to defund actually passed with broad bipartisan support.

They are:

  1. a wage rate study for emergency medical services workers,
  2. a needle exchange program to reduce the spread of infectious diseases,
  3. increased funding for county jails,
  4. and salary increases for state mental health workers.