A crowd of more than 50 healthcare workers, patients, and advocates chanted outside the state capitol Tuesday afternoon protesting the Montana health department’s plan to reduce funding for Medicaid services.
They came for their first opportunity to testify before a legislative committee that’s also questioning the priorities of Governor Steve Bullock’s administration as it trims the state budget in the face of a continuing state revenue shortfall.
Denise Hauer is standing on the edge of the protest on the back lawn of the state capitol.
“They make you feel like you're nothing,” Hauer says.
Hauer is scared budget cuts are going to close down, or take away the people who help her at the Mental Health New Direction Center Great Falls.
“We do things together. We go to parks. We have ceramics there. They help us forget about … Make us feel important. I never had so many friends in my entire life. And now I have these guys.”
The protest was organized by a statewide group of providers of independent living services for people with disabilities.
The Montana health department is proposing to reduce how much it pays Medicaid provider payments by about three percent. That could directly impact services for the elderly, and people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities.
Including federal matching dollars, DPHHS is proposing to trim more than $20 million.
The legislative committee that oversees the health services agency met inside the capitol building, as protesters shouted and waved signs outside.
The Children, Families, Health, and Human Services interim committee, made up equally of Republicans and four Democrats, voted 7-1 to object to the Bullock administration’s proposed cuts to DPHHS. The vote delayed adoption of the budget cuts for about 6 months.
Lawmakers say they never meant for Medicaid services to take such a big hit when they passed laws aimed at balancing the state’s budget earlier this year.
Jon Knokey, a Republican from Bozeman, accused the executive branch of not following laws passed in the last legislative session.
"I am convinced that these cuts to essential government services do not represent legislative intent. I was there. I was part of it. That’s my opinion. They do not repressive legislative intent and at a minimum we should work together and not make permanent cuts," Knokey said.
During the committee meeting more than a hundred people, many of whom were just outside protesting, testified opposing the cuts.
Libby Velde from Missoula told the committee that without the help of a Medicaid funded case management system her son and daughter would likely be in juvenile detention or dead.
“If it wasn’t for these programs we would not be here today. Seven years ago we were fleeing domestic violence and we were homeless and unemployed and I was scared. And now, they helped us get to where we are today, which is maintaining stability, housing, employment, and finally giving back to other families that are facing some of the same circumstances. And I beg you to look at the stories that you are going to hear today, that these are people, not figures in a ledger that need to be balance.”
Danielle Harden, a clinical director for Western Montana Mental Health Center in Hamilton, says the cuts proposed by DPHHS will cripple her organization.
“These cuts are going to lead to decreased accessible care for mental illness and preventive care. And the lack of access is going to increase cost in other areas.”
Harden, along with other care providers and a former member of law enforcement, told the committee cutting mental health service funding would increase pressure on courts and the justice system.
DPHHS Director Sheila Hogan made only a brief comment during the yesterday’s committee hearing. She promised to work with lawmakers and the public to get as much funding to healthcare serves as possible, but she said the state is facing financial problems.
On top of the initial round of cuts to DPHHS, and other state agencies in August, last Friday Democratic Governor Steve Bullock announced that state law required him to ask all departments to cut an additional 10 percent from their budgets because of declining state revenue.
Kelly Jepson from Missoula works for the healthcare service provide Consumer Direct Care Network of Montana. She, and several others who testified before the committee, said departments shouldn’t be having to face these financial decisions about paying for healthcare, because the state could be bringing in more money.
"The math does not add up. A state cannot continue to do this. If you don’t have additional revenue, I’m sorry if that means that people are worried about pissing of their constituents. I’m a constituent, I’m here telling you I will pay additional taxes to support this. So raise my taxes,” Jepson said.
Increased taxes to provide more money for state services were offered by the Governor Bullock and Democrats during the legislative session, but rejected by Republicans.
The legislative health committee will reconsider its vote to block the Bullock administration's proposed cuts at its next meeting in November. It’s still not clear if the cuts will be blocked.