Health and Human Services budget cuts draw concern, dismay
By DAVID BROOKS
You don’t have to tell Bill Doherty of Merrimack, father of three grown children with autism, about the uncertainty that comes with state budget debates. He’s lived through it before.
Doherty’s eldest son, Robert, was about to turn 21 in 2011 when lawmakers made cuts to the state budget that removed much of the funding for transition services, which help the developmentally disabled when they turn 21 and become too old for school-based services.
“We started programs, not knowing if we were going to have them for another year. These kids can do so well, but have to keep them busy, repetition all the time; if you don’t do that, they’re going to regress,” Doherty recalled. “It was tough.”
Happily, he said, “Rob never regressed, and his services never got interrupted,” but it was touch and go. Now 23, Robert is living in enhanced family care in Nashua.
“He’s learning to be more independent,” said Doherty.
But this year Bonnie, the next-oldest child of Doherty and his wife, Mary Ellen, is about to turn 21, and a budget being considered by the New Hampshire House Finance Committee would once again cut transition funds.
Social service groups such as Gateways Community Services in Nashua, which connected The Telegraph with Doherty, are expressing alarm over the committee’s proposed reductions to Department and Health and Human Services budget, compared to the budget put forward by Gov. Maggie Hassan.
The most prominent votes by the committee includes a decision not to renew the expansion of Medicaid services beyond the end of 2016, to remove about $10.5 million from services such as home meal delivery for the elderly, and to delay by a year the summer opening of a 10-bed crisis unit at New Hampshire Hospital,
House finance officials have said the state cannot afford that level of spending, especially because of increased costs due to two recent legal settlements, one involving the state’s mental health system and another involving the Medicaid Enhancement Tax.
Protests from affected social service agencies have been building since, many of them saying cuts will end up costing more because they will lead to more problems.
“The annual cost of Meals on Wheels is approximately $3,000 per client. The annual cost of a nursing home is in the tens of thousands of dollars – and much of the cost comes at taxpayer expense,” Richard Plamondon, chairman of the board of directors of St. Joseph Community Services, wrote in a letter regarding the Meals on Wheels program. “If this proposed reduction becomes a reality, the immediate and ongoing costs in increased health care and institutional expenses will dwarf any short-term savings.”
“I’ve never seen anything this dramatic to development disability services in my career, and my career is pretty long at this point,” said Sandra Pelletier, executive director of Gateways Community Services, which has about 3,000 developmentally disabled clients – 80 percent of them living with their families rather than in group facilities – throughout Greater Nashua.
Pelletier said the proposed budget, which will be the subject of a committee vote Wednesday, would cut $53 million in state aid and associated federal aid to Department of Developmental Services agencies including Gateways, as compared to the proposal from Gov. Maggie Hassan. That’s about one-fifth of its proposed $259 budget.
Elsewhere in Nashua, Bridges, which provides support for victims of domestic and sexual violence, is facing a loss of about $32,000 from a pool of grant money for shelters. The effect on its emergency shelter in the city, open for people fleeing abuse, is uncertain, said Dawn Reams, executive director of Bridges.
There’s even a chance that the shelter, which has operated since 1980, might close.
“Since 2011 most of our income streams have been cut. We have eliminated two staff positions, reduced services providing. … (Closing) would be definitely be a conversation we would have to have,” said Reams.
A variety of protests and public actions have been planned in an attempt to sway House lawmakers. A group called New Futures, for example, is recruiting 300 people to lie down on the State House plaza in front on Wednesday morning, as legislators show up for the session, “to represent the 300 citizens that our state lost to drug overdoses in 2014.”
The project, which they’re labelling a “die-in,” is designed to draw media attention. “We encourage the theatrical,” says a statement sent to potential participants.
Bill Doherty, who has testified in Congress about service issues in the past, expects he’ll be doing it again as the budget works its way through the House and Senate.
“They don’t understand – clearly, they don’t understand. In the long run it’s going to cost them more,” he said. “What it does to the kids is just sad.”