AUGUSTA — Jay Testa came to the microphone after the appropriations panel had heard hours of testimony about the governor’s $25.6 million emergency spending package and said nervously, “I want to live in a group home … [but] it’s too full.”
Testa is one of hundreds of adults with mental illness 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 Cowing had to take over for him Thursday to tell the legislative committee why he supports the nearly $8 million Gov. Angus King has recommended for the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services to finish the two-year budget cycle ending June 30, 1999.
“Jay is learning all the time,” Cowing said, describing 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.”
The budgets 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 those who spoke about the DHS budget talked about the need for funding home-based care for the elderly, telling stories of parents with Alzheimer’s disease 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 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.
DHS Commissioner Kevin Concannon projected that his department will be nearly $1 million under budget by the end of the two-year budget cycle. Marc Mutty, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, saw a “sin of ommission” in that budget: Welfare benefits for people on the Temporary Aid to Needy Families program, formerly AFDC, have been cut back for years and should now be raised. He spoke of the need to make sure poor families have essentials as a matter of conscience for the state.
But some Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee members, such as 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 such as Cowing, Ott 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; 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 because they were taking good care of their child. One woman said she knew families that had fabricated “crises” in order to get treatment.
The committee said that it 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 on Thursday because of the ice storm — Peter Stowell, executive director of the Maine Developmental Disabilities Council, said he was there in spite of “a 100-year-old maple tree on my roof and a 50-year-old elm tree on my road,” — the public hearing will be continued next Tuesday morning.