By Bob Katzen
Gov. Baker last week cut $98 million from the $39 billion-plus fiscal 2017 state budget to address what he says is the estimated state shortfall unless revenues dramatically increase.Cuts include $7.6 million for the Office of Travel and Tourism; $6.4 million for the State Police; $1.9 million for the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services; $665,000 for the Emergency Food Assistance Program; $630,000 for the Stop Stroke Program; $300,000 for Prostate Cancer Research; $250,000 for the School Breakfast Program; and $185,000 for domestic violence and sexual assault prevention and survivor services.
“It’s pretty clear that with the deficiencies we need to fund – court-ordered attorneys, snow and ice, emergency assistance, stuff that I think there’s general agreement that we’re going to need to pay for – and the downturn that we’ve all seen in revenue despite the success of our economy that we needed to take action at this time,” Baker told the State House News Service.
“The governor’s really trying to achieve only one policy objective and that’s a constitutionally required balanced budget,” said House GOP Leader Rep. Brad Jones (R-North Reading).
The response from the Legislature’s Democratic leadership was swift. House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop), calling the cuts premature, said, “Recent revenue numbers indicate a need to be vigilant. They do not, however, necessitate cuts at this time.”
DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg (D-Amherst) said they will focus on restoring programs that help the neediest and may file a supplemental budget to restore the funds.
“The governor is shifting important funding away from the priorities of the Legislature in favor of his own,” added Senate Ways and Means chair Karen Spilka (D-Ashland). “These cuts will have real consequences on all the communities of the Commonwealth struggling with opioid addiction and housing and should not be made at this time.”
Baker vetoed $265 million from the fiscal 2017 budget in July but the Legislature overrode most of his vetoes and restored $231 million.
FRESHMEN LEGISLATORS – Newly-elected freshmen representatives and senators last week attended the Academy for New Legislators at UMass in Amherst. According to the Academy’s website, the 2-day program consists of sessions on the legislative budget process, rules of the House and Senate, ethics, the state budget, the economy, constituent services, interviewing techniques for broadcast media, polling and press communications, and life as a freshman legislator. A simulated session of a committee hearing and the House and Senate are also conducted.
EYE DROPS (S 2512) – The Senate approved a bill that would require insurance plans to cover refills of prescription eye drops under the same guidelines used by Medicare Part D. Plans in the Bay State currently restrict patients from refilling eye drops and other medications earlier than the 30-day or 90-day refill date. The bill would allow patients get a refill if they run out of drops a few days prior to the allowed refill date.
Supporters explained that unlike pills, eye drops are difficult to administer and patients often use more than one drop at a time because the first drop misses. They said this leads to patients either taking a twice daily eye drop only once a day or discontinuing their use of drops until the next allowable refill under their health plan. They argued that this can cause their condition, like glaucoma, to worsen and presents serious health and vision risks.
The Senate also added language that would allow some optometrists to treat anaphylactic reactions by injecting epinephrine or adrenaline. Under current law, only ophthalmologists are allowed to do so. The House has approved a different version of the bill without the optometrist provision and the Senate version now goes to the House for consideration.
THE CARE ACT (H 3911) – The House and Senate also approved and sent to Gov. Baker a proposal that would require hospitals to allow patients to designate a caregiver who would be given all the patient’s health information and a copy of his or her discharge plan.
Hospital staff would be required to discuss with the patient and caregiver the after-care assistance needs of the patient including medication management, injections and wound care. Other required information includes available community resources and long-term care support services near the patient’s residence that may be used to support the discharge plan.
Supporters said the new law makes life a little easier for caregivers and provide better services for the patient. They noted 844,000 people in Massachusetts, mostly unpaid family caregivers, are helping an aging parent or other loved one to live independently in their own homes.
They argued that many of these caregivers have a regular full or part-time job and are overwhelmed by their caregiver duties. They noted that in 2015 in Massachusetts, family caregivers provided 786 million hours of unpaid care valued at an estimated $11.6 billion annually.
Lynn Nicholas, President and CEO of Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association said, “This bill will help ensure that designated caregivers have the information they need to best support their family members and friends once they have left the hospital.”