Budget cuts will hit most vulnerable, not bureaucracy

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Gov. Bullock has called a special session to address budget shortfalls. We all hoped that any special session would include efforts to eliminate human services cuts that will hurt vulnerable Montanans. But don’t be fooled. As called, the special session will not protect the disabled, elderly, and other Montanans in need. The best-case scenario from the special session as called assumes $110 million in cuts to the Department of Public Health and Human Services, with most of those cuts not to the bureaucracy, but to direct services to people — the cuts that hurt the most.

These are cuts to critical community and health services provided by small businesses throughout the state. They are in addition to cuts proposed by the administration earlier this year, which are on hold but still loom as a possibility and are not part of the special session. Providers are already taking steps such as closing group homes, limiting services, and laying off staff. These cuts hurt those who depend on the services and cost Montanans jobs and the tax revenue from that employment.

The $110 million in cuts include eliminating or significantly reducing:

— Medicaid coverage of dentures for adults, including elderly people in nursing homes and at home who must have dentures to maintain basic nutrition. 

— Mental health services that will further diminish rural services, increase admissions to the State Hospital, and erode progress on jail diversion, which saves counties money.

— Funding to independent living projects, which assist disabled Montanans with basic needs such as bathing and dressing so they can go to work and pay taxes.

— Programs which keep seriously mentally ill children from being sent to institutions and stabilize them at home, where long-term success is more likely.

— Services that provide in-home care and assisted living for physically disabled and elderly people, while saving money by avoiding higher cost services. 

— Family education and support services, which help families of people with developmental disabilities to provide care and be less dependent on outside assistance.

— Evaluation and diagnosis clinics that provide early diagnosis and facilitate treatment of developmental disabilities, even though early detection is the best and most cost-effective approach.

— Incontinence supplies for Montanans who can’t afford such essential supplies, but can’t function without them.

— Adult targeted case management, which helps people with severe mental illness avoid institutionalization, resulting in more pressure on state institutions, which cost nearly $600 per patient per day.

— Targeted case management for people with developmental disabilities.

— Substance abuse services despite lengthy waiting lists and increased demands due to sentencing revisions. 

Montana is in a budget crunch, but to propose cuts that will have such severe impacts to our fellow Montanans and our communities is the wrong way to go. Other options must be explored. In part, cuts are being proposed to comply with a 2015 state law that requires a general fund surplus of around $143 million — much more than previously required. Going back to the pre-2015 level could eliminate many of these cuts.

Re-examining the ending fund balance and all other options must be discussed. It is unacceptable to hold a special session that defines success as cutting essential services to people. A budget reflects our values. The current budget proposal says we place little value on our elderly, disabled, mentally ill, and other vulnerable neighbors.

Contact the governor’s office and your legislators to tell them Montana’s values are not reflected in the proposed cuts and that the special session needs to look at other options.

Rose Hughes is executive director of the Montana Health Care Association. This letter was also signed by:

Beth Brenneman, Disability Rights Montana

Rev. David Andersen, Montana Association of Christians

Dave Hemion, Montana Dental Association

Rose Hughes, Montana Health Care Association

Joel Peden, Montana Independent Living Project

Sue Weingartner, Montana Optometric Association

Marti Wangen, Montana Podiatric Medical Association

Duncan Campbell and Michele McKinnie, Montana Psychological Association

Catherine Drescher, Montana Speech-Language-Hearing Association

Travis Hoffman, Summit Independent Living

Jodi Daly, Western Montana Mental Health Center

Brenda Kneeland, Eastern Montana Community Mental Health Center

Barbara Mettler, South Central Regional Mental Health Center

Sydney Blair, Center for Mental Health.

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