Pa. budget deliberations resume

Human services advocates complaining about proposed cuts

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HARRISBURG -- As legislators return to the Capitol today to resume work on the 2011-12 state budget, human service groups say that plan has serious problems.

Complaints about the $27.3 billion budget approved by the House come from county agencies for the homeless, nonprofits aiding physically and mentally disabled people, hospital officials, groups that counsel drug and alcohol addicts, and those that provide transportation for low-income people to doctors' offices.

Lawmakers face a June 30 deadline for enacting a spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1, and they're eager to finally enact a budget on time -- for the first time in eight years.

The budget passed in late May by the Republican-controlled House did make some changes to the $27.3 billion spending package that GOP Gov. Tom Corbett proposed in early March. The House added back several hundred million dollars for public education but did so by decreasing funds for other items, including the Public Welfare Department and medical assistance for low-income people. The human service agencies have complaints about that and about other changes and want the Republican-controlled Senate to increase spending in some areas.

If the Senate does add back funds, a conflict could arise with the fiscally conservative Mr. Corbett, who has vowed to keep the budget's bottom line at $27.3 billion.

One dramatic display of human services groups' opposition to the House budget came two weeks ago, when physically disabled activists, some in wheelchairs, camped outside the governor's Capitol office and demanded to see him but were refused entrance.

The protesters were upset about a $17 million reduction in a program to provide home health aides, which they said allows disabled people to live at home. Cries of "Our homes! Not nursing homes!" were made. Cassie Holdsworth of Philadelphia, who has spina bifida, said the in-home aides help her fix meals, get dressed for her job and handle household chores. Protesters said the governor has ignored their phone calls and letters, adding, "We want him to come out and look us in the eye." A Corbett aide said staffers have met with the group.

House Democrats, not surprisingly, want to make political hay out of the discontent over the GOP budget. "This budget is in many ways cruel and draconian and could hurt how we provide social services in Pennsylvania," Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, said. As senators now go to work on the spending plan, he said, "We see a role for House Democrats in the negotiations."

Ten days ago, a House Democratic policy panel heard from the unhappy human services groups. Some complaints:

• The House reduced, by $470 million, Mr. Corbett's allotment for the Public Welfare Department, including funds for medical assistance, or Medicaid, to the poor and elderly.

• The House failed to restore the full $27 million cut to food and housing programs for 16,000 Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities who live in group homes.

• Drug and alcohol treatment programs for low-income people who earn too much to qualify for medical assistance were cut by $4.3 million, which would make a total reduction of $9.5 million over the past four years.

• The House reduced, by nearly $10 million, the amount the governor wants to spend on transportation to doctors' offices for people on medical assistance.

• The budget includes a $22 million reduction for children and youth services in the 67 counties.

Brinda Penyak of the County Commissioners Association told Democrats that the GOP House budget, called House Bill 1485, will be hard on counties. It's fine for House Republicans to add back public school funding, she said, but not at the expense of necessary human service programs. She said counties -- and their residents, who pay property taxes -- were hurt financially by the 101-day budget impasse in 2009, which followed mid-year budget reductions three years ago and a general budget freeze in January 2010.

"These events have forced counties to increase local property taxes, eliminate or curtail vital public services and lay off employees," she said. And now, with House Bill 1485, "the dollars available for crucial human services programs are reduced."

By trimming medical assistance funds, the state would affect health care services to 17 percent of Pennsylvanians -- 2.2 million people who are low-income, disabled, chronically ill and elderly, said Paula Bussard of the state Hospital & Healthsystem Association.

"Hospitals provide needed health care to all who come through their doors," Ms. Bussard said. "To sustain this mission, medical assistance funding is critical."

Mr. Corbett called for cutting medical assistance payments to hospitals by $333 million, which, in Ms. Bussard's view, didn't meet the governor's stated goal of "shared sacrifice" for all budget recipients but instead puts the pain "disproportionately on the backs of hospitals and health systems and their patients."

While the House-passed budget restored some funding for hospitals' obstetrics and burn/trauma units, it made other undesirable changes, she said, such as eliminating $71 million in payments to hospitals for uncompensated care, which is care for people without insurance. Those costs reached $900 million for hospitals statewide last year.

Along with other changes in House Bill 1485, "the total impact of payment cuts on hospitals" is nearly $413 million for fiscal 2011-12, she said.


Tom Barnes: hickeybarnes@yahoo.com or 1-717-623-1238. Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello contributed.


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