AUGUSTA — Jay Testa nervously walked up to the microphone after the appropriations panel had heard hours of testimony on Gov. Angus King’s $25.6 million emergency spending package and said, “I want to live in a group home … [but] it’s too full.”
Testa is one of hundreds of mentally retarded adults on a waiting list for day or residential services. His father, David Cowing of Woolwich, said his 23-year-old son usually wants to do things on his own, but he had to take over for him Thursday, to tell the legislative committee why he supports the nearly $8 million King has recommended for the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services for the rest of this fiscal year and the next.
“Jay is learning all the time,” Cowing said, relating the difficulty of waiting for treatment for a son who wants to be independent like any other adult — but who needs help. “He knows now he shouldn’t put popcorn in the microwave for more than half an hour … and he shouldn’t break windows in the front of the house and try to fix them on his own.’
Spending requests for the Department of Human Services and for the mental health department focused on the continuing shift in both agencies from institutional treatment to care in the community. Most of the people who came to the hearing on behalf of DHS talked about the money for home-based care for the elderly, telling stories of parents with Alzheimers who didn’t want to live away from home, the difficulty of helping them without training, and comparing the low cost of home care with that of nursing home care.
After years of cuts to many programs, and with money suddenly available from surplus revenue, some legislators questioned whether now is the time to expand the safety net of social programs — and how to rein in the requests that are coming in.
With a year and a half to go in its two year budget, DHS was in the enviable position of projecting it will be nearly $1 million under budget.
That wasn’t good news, however, to Marc Mutty, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, who said there is a “sin of ommission” in the DHS budget — welfare benefits for the people on the Temporary Aid to Needy Families program have been cut back for years and should be raised now. He spoke of the need to make sure poor families have essentials as a matter of conscience for the state.
But some committee members, like Rep. David Ott, R-York, said that, “like the stories we heard today, every department will make compelling arguments for funding, and it’s hard to make a decision on where your priority needs are.”
As he listened to parents like Cowing, he said he understood how wrenching it would be to watch a child develop and grow with proper treatment, only to lose that progress when forced to wait for help. But, he said, he was worried about the waiting list constantly expanding as more and more people saw that there was help and funding available for the state; he pointed out that many of those who testified were taking care of their adult children at home. “They see a new pot of money and there’s a danger it will be soaked up,” when the money really should go to people in crisis.
Several parents at the hearing talked about the irony they saw in not being able to get help for a child because they were taking good care of their child; one woman said she knew families who had fabricated “crises” in order to get treatment.
The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee members said they will not consider the mental health department’s request to pull money away from the Bangor Mental Health Institute until a public hearing in Bangor next Thursday. And for all those who could not make it to the State House Thursday because of the ice storm — Peter Stowell, the executive director of the Maine Developmental Disabilities Council, said he was there in spite of “a 100-year-old maple tree on my roof” — the public hearing will be continued next Tuesday morning.