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As Government Shutdown Looms, Maine's Elderly, Poor Prepare for the Worst

Mal Leary
Maine Public/file
The Maine State House dome, seen in January of 2015.

If Maine lawmakers are unable to negotiate a veto-proof budget deal, advocates for the poor and elderly want to know, what's the plan?  In the event of a state government shutdown on July 1, what services will be deemed "essential" by the governor?Will food stamps, Medicaid and other assistance be provided?  The state has yet to provide any answers.  And at least one group is preparing for the worst.

If there is a state government shutdown later this week and if the state refuses to process benefits for food stamps, Temporary Aid for Needy Families and Medicaid, or to accept and process applications for those programs, Jack Comart says he's ready to go to federal court. 

Comart is the litigation director for the low-income advocacy group, Maine Equal Justice Partners. "We've notified the state that we're preparing to sue if there is a shutdown.  All those programs are required by federal law to have certain timeliness standards for processing applications and providing benefits. So, the state would be in violation of those federal requirements, so we would sue."

Around the state, about 450,000 clients would be affected, Comart says; about 270,000 are recipients of MaineCare, the state's Medicaid program; about 150,000 receive food stamps, and another 7,000 receive TANF.

"A lot of them are elderly and disabled and, you know, we want to provide them with assurance that they're going to get their food supplement benefits," Comart says. "They're going to get their MaineCare benefits and they're not going to go without."

Among those worrying about the effects of a state government shutdown  is 54-year-old Sarah Dunlop of Mexico.  She's a former truck driver who says she's disabled because of multiple health conditions, including diabetes. 

Dunlop receives food stamps to supplement her Social Security and MaineCare which pays for her insulin. "Food is very important and my insulin is very important.  Even just to survive - not just the fact that I'm diabetic, but if I don't get my insulin for whatever reason, I've got hours before I go DKA, which is pre-coma.  But if I have no way of getting my insulin, I'm sure to die."

Dunlop doesn't drive and instead relies on a state transportation service to get to her doctor's appointments.  She says if she paid for her insulin out of pocket it would cost about $900 a month, well over the $735 she receives in SSI. 

Dunlop says her adult son would do what he could for her but he'd be hard-pressed to cover the cost of her medication and her food. 

Samantha Watson of Parsonsfield says she'd also see a domino effect in her world if state aid is not forthcoming.  She's a single mother enrolled in the state's Parents as Scholars program.

"If government shuts down that means I don't have access to the child care that I use, which means that I won't be able to get to school or to my work study position, which means I won't have money for gas, it means I won't have my food supplement income.  So, no food for my family.  That will be devastating."

Watson is a nursing student at the University of Southern Maine who says she has worked hard to finish early so she can get a job as quickly as possible and become financially independent. A government shutdown, she says, could disrupt that plan if she misses classes and an upcoming exam.

“I want to know why Gov. LePage and the Legislature aren’t doing everything that they can to prevent this crisis from happening because that’s what this will be,” she says. “This will be a crisis.”

Amy Gallant of AARP Maine is concerned about the ramifications for everyone from retirees and state employees to low-income workers of all ages who cannot afford to go days, let alone weeks, without a paycheck or state assistance.

"We urge the administration to protect the most essential services such as SNAP, food supplement, Medicare Savings, Drugs for the Elderly,  certainly any kind of essential service," Gallant says.

But, so far, the state has been mum about what it might consider "essential" to keep going during a state shutdown.  The Department of Health and Human Services referred all questions to the governor's office and the governor's office did not respond to requests for comment for this story. 

During the state government shutdown of 1991 former Attorney General Michael Carpenter convinced the administration of Republican Gov. John McKernan that DHHS should stay open and Mainers received their assistance.  Now a Democratic state senator, Carpenter is not optimistic that would happen this time.

"The chief executive, in those days, was very consultative, if you will, with my office," Carpenter says. "I don't think that will be the case now.  The relationship is not the same between Gov. LePage and Attorney General Mills as it was between myself and Gov. McKernan."

Carpenter says he's spoken with the attorney general and her chief deputy who are preparing for a possible state shutdown.  But whatever their position is,  they aren't saying.  A spokesperson for the attorney general's office declined to comment or this story.

This story was originally published on June 26, 2017, at 5:46 a.m. ET.