Senate budget writers restore health cuts in House plan

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CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Senate budget writers moved Wednesday to restore many of the deepest cuts to health services in the House's $11.2 billion budget, including services for older residents, people with developmental disabilities and substance abuse treatment.

"What we did today was a compassionate budget in regards to health and human services," said Republican Sen. Jeanie Forrester, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

The six-member committee has been meeting this week to put the finishing touches on its version of the next state budget. Senators have about $118 million more in anticipated revenue to play with than the House did when crafting its budget several months ago because of updated estimates.

The spending choices made this week could still change; the full Senate will vote on the budget June 4, then House and Senate budget writers must negotiate a final plan. The Senate Finance Committee hasn't put out a total spending number yet, making it hard to determine if and how their budget is balancing.

The existing $10.7 billion two-year state budget ends June 30.

The House's cuts to Gov. Maggie Hassan's budget plan in the areas of substance abuse, services for people with developmental disabilities and programs for older residents such as Meals on Wheels prompted strong backlash, and senators have long said protecting the state's most vulnerable citizens is one of their priorities.

Budget writers propose giving $23 million in state general funds back to programs that serve people with developmental disabilities, which would also come with nearly $19 million in federal dollars. That's less than the more than $50 million cut the House made from the governor's budget proposal, but senators said state health officials have assured them it is enough to fully fund the services.

The Senate's plan boosts funding for drug and alcohol abuse prevention in several areas. It puts $6.5 million in the state's alcohol abuse prevention and treatment fund, which hasn't received the money that supporters say it should in more than a decade. Senators also proposed $6.6 million to extend substance abuse treatment to traditional Medicaid patients. Gov. Maggie Hassan proposed the extension in her budget, but the House eliminated it.

It does not, however, include funding for a state employee dedicated to coordinating the state's response to substance abuse, a position being paid for by a nonprofit through part of next year.

Senators also restored $4 million in funding for emergency shelters, effectively level-funding them compared to the existing budget, and moved to return money to Meals on Wheels and ServiceLink, two programs used by older residents.

Efforts by Democratic Sens. Lou D'Allesandro of Manchester and Andrew Hosmer of Laconia failed to extend the state's Medicaid expansion plan beyond 2016. The plan aims to use federal dollars to put eligible residents on private health plans, but it is set to sunset at the end of 2016. Republican senators said they would rather debate reauthorizing the program next year when more information is available about how it's working. Nearly 40,000 have signed up for health insurance under the program.

"We're doing a good thing for the people of the state of New Hampshire," D'Allesandro said. "We ought to continue it."

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