HELENA – Health care providers and others who work with people in need are asking Montana leaders to reverse state budget cuts as quickly as possible.
Gov. Steve Bullock announced last week that, because of the state’s improving budget picture, leaders would be able to restore about $45 million in cuts made over the last year. Much of that money will go toward the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, which receives the most general fund money and therefore suffered the most drastic reductions.
Leaders have already announced that $5 million will be used to undo a cut in the Medicaid payment rate for health care providers. On Wednesday, health department director Sheila Hogan and Bullock’s budget director Dan Villa held a listening session at the Great Northern Hotel in Helena to hear providers’ opinions on what other cuts should be backfilled.
About 150 people attended the meeting, while 100 more connected by phone. They talked about the effects of cuts to things like mental health services, substance abuse assistance and targeted case management. Many said their ability to provide care has already been significantly damaged – and that it will be difficult to reverse that damage.
Shelly Johnson, executive director of Alcohol and Drug Services of Gallatin County, said her organization had to lay off licensed addiction counselors and administrative staff and cut back on some of their satellite services after the budget cuts.
“I think we will be able to provide the services once we get the money reinstated, but it’s going to take us a while to build those services back up,” she said.
Carl Brisendine, a Kalispell denturist, noted that denture coverage for adults on Medicaid was completely eliminated as part of the cuts. He said he has tried to keep helping his patients, but that he didn’t believe he would be able to continue that.
“Those cuts were made to basically the most vulnerable part of our citizens, that cannot provide the services on their own,” he said.
Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said, because of cuts to mental health services, deputies are having to respond more often to people in crisis. He said those people will sometimes have to be taken to jail instead of getting the help they need.
“If it’s affecting us in Gallatin County – we have an awesome system – it’s just devastating to our rural sheriff’s offices,” he said.
State leaders say they expect to make their final decisions on which cuts to backfill by September.