- Associated Press - Thursday, July 27, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana health officials are proposing Medicaid cuts that health care providers said Thursday would force nursing homes to turn away patients, put more people with mental illnesses in jail and prompt layoffs of workers who care for the disabled.

Health industry representatives lined up to protest the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services‘ proposal to reduce the rate paid to the state’s Medicaid providers by nearly 3.5 percent.

They told department officials in a public hearing that the rate reduction would have a devastating effect on providers who work directly with Medicaid patients who are elderly and with those who are disabled.

“It will undermine the community based services that act as a safety net for our vulnerable folks,” said Katherine Isaacson, executive director of Western Montana Mental Health, a nonprofit, community-based mental health provider.

The health department is under significant financial pressure after state lawmakers reduced its budget earlier this year, followed by a revenue shortfall that will trigger further budget cuts starting next month.

Health department officials defending the provider rate reduction have said they have nowhere else to cut but the provider rates.

Lee Newspapers of Montana reported the department must find $8.6 million in savings. The total amount cut would be about $26 million, including matching federal funding that would be lost.

The cuts would reduce the availability of mental health care in communities, which would increase the number of people in jail and in the state’s mental hospital, and lead to more suicides, Isaacson said.

Sgt. Jim Anderson of the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office said the cuts would “easily cripple our local mental health system.”

William Buck, who runs Shephard’s Way nursing home in Lewistown, said he would no longer be able to afford to take in Medicaid clients, many of whom are retired ranchers and farmers.

“This 3.47 percent reduction is devastating,” he said. “We are barely surviving.”

AWARE Inc., a nonprofit group that provides services to people with developmental disabilities and operates group homes, would lose $1.95 million and have to cut its workforce by 40, organization officials said in a statement.

A legislative committee that oversees the health department has filed an objection to the proposed cuts, which must be approved by health department director Sheila Hogan and Gov. Steve Bullock.

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