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Louisiana budget woes spark anxiety

by Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s budget woes have spawned a heart-wrenching yearly ritual, where people who rely on the state for health services plead with lawmakers to shield their programs from cuts, in grueling testimony about the real-life hardships of coping with disabilities.

The ritual played out again Monday in the Senate Finance Committee, as people in wheelchairs and parents with children unable to speak for themselves packed a hearing room to beg senators to reverse House-backed cuts proposed for the budget year starting July 1.

“What am I going to do? Who is going to help me survive?” asked Travis Stafford, a 60-year-old Baton Rouge resident who had a cerebral hemorrhage as a child and has suffered with seizures that have damaged his brain.

Stafford, wearing a helmet, sat at the table while a friend read his testimony to senators. The Medicaid program that helps him perform daily activities is on the chopping block.

Louisiana has struggled through a decade of budget gaps as tax cuts and tax breaks siphoned away billions from the state treasury and declining oil prices worsened the blow. Lawmakers and governors repeatedly pieced together short-term fixes to keep programs running, rather than making permanent decisions about how to pay for services.

Each year, as the patchwork dollars near expiration, critical health services are threatened and families trudge to the Louisiana Capitol to appeal for financing.

The House-backed version of next year’s budget would close a gap caused by expiring taxes by cutting $431 million in general state tax dollars from the health department. The cut would grow to an estimated $1.6 billion or more with the loss of federal matching dollars.

Safety-net hospitals would shutter, and tens of thousands would lose the state aid that keeps them in nursing homes. Finance Chairman Eric LaFleur said an estimated 45,000 people with disabilities are slated to lose health services in the budget proposal.

“It makes us look pretty heartless,” LaFleur said.

It concerns wheelchair-bound Jamie Duplechine, of Lafayette, who said she’s able to live on her own and hold a job with assistance from the state, aid which is now threatened with elimination.

“I would lose my job, my home and my life,” Duplechine said.

Gov. John Bel Edwards wants lawmakers to pass replacement taxes in a special session later this month to fill the budget hole. But it’s unclear if lawmakers will be able to reach a tax deal after a February special session imploded without raising revenue.

On Monday, parents choked up and wiped away tears as they explained the intricacies of caring for children who suffer with uncontrollable seizures, who breathe through tubes and who can’t feed themselves or hold up their own heads.

Senators vowed to try to stop the cuts — though they said people likely will wait several more weeks through the special session to learn if their services will be protected.

“I want to apologize that you have to go through this again,” said Sen. Regina Barrow, a Baton Rouge Democrat.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican, told the packed room: “Your stories are both heartbreaking and inspirational. We hear you.”

Kathryne Hart brought her 2-year-old son Carter to the hearing. At four months old, he was diagnosed with a severe epilepsy syndrome that can cause hundreds of seizures on some days. He’s unable to crawl, sit, roll over or eat on his own and requires constant care.

Hart, a Baton Rouge resident who works at a chemical plant, said private insurance doesn’t cover all the necessities required for Carter’s care, such as the $800 a month her family spends on a special feeding formula.

Her family gets some services through a Medicaid program for medically-fragile children, but Hart said she’s scaled back some of those services because her family can’t afford a cost-share enacted during a prior round of cuts. Carter is in the queue for another program, but Hart said the waiting list is 12 years.

“We and so many families like ours caring for angels need help,” Hart said. “Please invest in families.”

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