As the federal government struggles to address $85 billion in spending cuts, set to take effect Friday, March 1, officials in Delaware are weighing the impact sequestration will have on public health, schools and the state’s economy.
Public health officials say sequestration could mean higher costs for the state and federal government in the long term.
“We’re making people more vulnerable,” said Delaware Department of Health and Social Services Secretary Rita Landgraf.
According to a White House report, released Feb. 24, $86,000 would be cut from funding to upgrade each state’s ability to respond to public health threats, including infectious diseases and natural disasters. Landgraf said if a major hurricane hit coastal Delaware, these cuts could limit the state’s ability to provide emergency shelters and medical centers.
Landgraf said she understands the importance of fiscal responsibility, but legislators should consider the consequences of budget cuts.
The White House report says funding for vaccinations for Delaware children would be cut by $26,000. “For every action, there’s a reaction. Why would we want to cut something that prevents a disease?” Landgraf asked. “That action could land people into a deeper-ended service.”
The White House report says federal cuts would mean $201,000 less to provide meals for Delaware seniors. “Sussex County in particular has a large senior population,” Landgraf said.
She said if seniors are eliminated from the program, they could be forced into nursing homes, funded by Medicaid, which would cost the federal government far more than paying to deliver meals so seniors could remain in their homes.
Landgraf said programs like Meals on Wheels might need to start a waiting list. “Or, they don’t get a meal a day,” she said. “If you’re hungry, you can’t put that off.”
Meals on Wheels of Lewes and Rehoboth Director Kathleen Keuski said the organization would step up fundraising efforts to offset the cut. “We are also a member of Meals on Wheels Delaware, who gives the meal providers in the state of Delaware meal funding grants, which will also help with the decrease,” she said.
In a Feb. 27 statement, Randy Nelson, marketing director for CHEER, said if sequestration occurs, Meals On Wheels funding under the federal Older Americans Act faces a minimum 8.8 percent across-the-board reduction in Delaware.
Since the economic recession hit, Nelson said, donations are down, food and gas costs are up and state and local funding has decreased or remained flat. “Add to that equation the number of seniors facing the threat of hunger grew from nearly six million in 2007 to 8.3 million in 2010 – a 34 percent increase according to the Meals On Wheels Research Foundation,” Nelson said.
Brown University researchers found Meals On Wheels is the only statistically significant factor keeping seniors out of nursing homes, which are far more costly, he said.
Nelson said Gov. Jack Markell requested an additional $700,000 in his fiscal year 2014 budget for Meals On Wheels, to cover shortfalls in the program, but it will not offset sequestration cuts.
Landgraf said she and leaders with all 12 divisions of DHSS are meeting Monday, March 4, to discuss the cuts and prioritize the needs of the department. “Do we absorb the cuts somehow?” she asked. “Can we leverage?”
Landgraf said the department underwent major budget cuts four years ago. “Our low-hanging fruit has been gone since 2009,” she said. “Our demand continues to grow.”
“Seniors and children are probably our most vulnerable population,” Landgraf said. “We can’t afford another cut back.”
Sequestration also calls for a $330,000 decrease in grants to prevent and treat substance abuse, which the White House says would mean 400 fewer people could be admitted to substance abuse programs in Delaware. Another $70,000 would be cut from Delaware Division of Public Health funding for HIV tests, resulting in about 1,800 fewer tests, the report says.
Federal cuts could stifle job growth
Gov. Jack Markell met with President Barack Obama, Feb. 25, following a National Governors Association meeting, to discuss the effects of sequestration.
“The combination of cuts and the uncertainty that the current situation creates for businesses is troubling. Employers are holding back investments that could put people to work,” Markell said in a press release.
A White House reports says sequestration would mean:
- Job search assistance, referral and placement could be cut by $86,000, affecting more than 3,000 people looking for a job in the state.
- A $1.4 million decrease in primary and secondary education funding, and another $18 million decrease in federal funding for programs to educate Delaware children with disabilities. The White House report estimates 40 teacher, aide and staff jobs would be at risk, but Delaware Department of Education officials set the estimate at 80 to 100 positions.
- A decrease of $1.1 million is expected for programs to ensure clean water and air and prevent pollution from pesticides and hazardous waste.
- A loss of $359,000 in grants for fish and wildlife protection.
Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Collin O’Mara said the loss of grants could limit the department’s ability to maintain trails in the state.
O’Mara said cuts in wastewater infrastructure, which allow the department to provide low-interest loans to citizens to replace septic units, could mean fewer projects would be approved and some projects could be delayed for up to a year.
O’Mara said Congress could still negotiate a resolution to the sequester, so there is no plan yet to restore the funds that would be cut. “We don’t want to take any action until we know what the final decisions are,” he said.