- Associated Press - Saturday, June 25, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, facing a roughly $600 million gap as the current budget year ends and scouring the nearly $34 billion spending plan for spare cash, is finding savings from overestimated costs.

It’s a regular practice in New Jersey government, but critics argue the money could instead be spent on worthwhile programs rather than being funneled to the general fund to close budget gaps in lean years.

Christie identified nearly $282 million in savings from more than a dozen areas, with the largest savings of $95 million coming from the division responsible for the state’s public health care program, known as FamilyCare.

The administration says it overestimated enrollment in a program that assists elderly residents in getting nursing home care under Medicaid, according to Nicole Brossoie, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services.

“To err on the side of being fully prepared, enrollment was overprojected,” she said. “Using the actual enrollment data, projections for this fiscal year’s budget better reflect the trend.”

Critics, who acknowledge the savings are not cuts but a regular part of budgeting, say the administration could have put the money toward reaching people who are eligible for Medicaid and FamilyCare but remain unenrolled.

Ray Castro, a senior policy analyst for the left-leaning think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, says there are poor and immigrant residents who could qualify for the program but aren’t aware it exists. He cited a 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation survey that showed there are 335,000 residents who are eligible but unenrolled.

“The main criticism is that if they had done good outreach they wouldn’t have had all these savings,” he said.

The state’s FamilyCare website includes a toll-free phone number as well as instructions for signing up in Spanish, but it lacks the kind of coordinated outreach - like having state officials go out into neighborhoods - that could get more people signed up, according to Castro.

The administration, though, said there is “an abundance of awareness and outreach already in place.”

FamilyCare is promoted on the state and local government level, in hospitals, through physicians, faith-based organizations and non-governmental social service organizations, according to Brossoie. She also said applicants to the federal marketplace deemed eligible for Medicaid are referred to FamilyCare.

The belt-tightening comes as the 2016 budget year wraps up July 1 and as Christie and the Democrat-led Legislature wrangle over the 2017 budget. It also follows disappointing revenue returns, which spurred the administration to look for cuts.

But the administration’s cost-savings moves have not become a major concern for most lawmakers, who are instead focused on transportation funding, advancing a proposed constitutional amendment to require quarterly pension payments and a host of other measures.

Democratic Budget Committee chairman Gary Schaer pointed out that Christie’s savings in the current fiscal year are not much different from what happens every year and said governors need flexibility while budgeting. He said legislators get frustrated when spending on a particular program is argued over, agreed upon and then cut, but he didn’t specify any such programs marked for savings this year.

“Looking through the couch cushions is something we applaud,” he said. “It should be happening.”

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