Had enough? Citizens, take back your government!

From State House News Service:


By Priscilla Yeon
and Gintautas Dumcius

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 15, 2007…..During a day when several health advocates and agencies asked for budget increases, an STD prevention group asked the state to stop accepting federal funds for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in schools, deeming the programs ineffective and misleading to young people.

During a public hearing, state Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby heard testimony from all agencies under her purview. Bigby convened the hearing as she settles into a secretariat that spends more money and serves more people than any other secretariat in state government.

Asked what aspect of the budget she would like to prioritize next fiscal year, Bigby told the News Service: “My goal is to make sure that we get the most efficient use of the funds that we do have to integrate services across agencies just like people have requested in their testimonies, and to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can with families and children in our agencies and to make sure that health care reform results in more in more insured people so they have better access to health care.”

Deborah Fournier, associate director of public policy at AIDS Action Committee, asked the state to refuse federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and urged the Department of Public Health (DPH) to halt such programs.

“Young people need access to comprehensive health and sexuality education to make responsible decisions, prevent diseases and reduce unintended pregnancies and risky behaviors so that they can lead healthy lives,” said Fournier.
“Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs promote sexual ignorance in the name of abstinence.’

Melissa Kogut, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, said due to a Romney administration policy, federal funds for abstinence-only programs can only be used in schools. Many legislators opposed the administration’s policy but they could not muster the support to overturn it.

Kogus said the Department of Public Health in the past had used federal funds “for an effective abstinence education media campaign.”

Patricia Quinn, director of public policy at the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, said the abstinence programs “over-emphasize” the risks of contraception and create opinions against the efficiency of condoms in preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STD). According to Quinn, the federal government offers $700,000 for DPH in abstinence-only programs and about $800,000 million to community-based initiatives for abstinence-only programs.

“Our culture’s ambivalence, fear, and confusion about adolescent sexual health hinder our ability to provide support for their responsible decision-making,” said Quinn.

As the state implements the new health reform law, Dan Moen, chairman of the Massachusetts Hospital Association board of trustees, stressed the need to adequately fund the uncompensated care pool, which compensates providers who treat uninsured patients.

Hospitals and health center rely on the pool to offset costs provided to low-income uninsured patients, said Moen. He said while some of the money from the pool will be diverted to pay for Commonwealth Care health plans, it was important to keep funding the pool so hospitals can get compensated before the law is “successfully” implemented.

Eva Millona, policy director at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said the Connector Health Insurance Board needs to continue its outreach grant funding for community-based organizations to provide education about the new health care reform law and immigrants’ rights and responsibilities.

Millona also asked for an additional $2 million for Citizenship Services for New Americans, a program integrating English as a Second Language and civic classes to facilitate naturalization of more than 300,000 legal immigrants, and support for the safety net benefits for legal immigrants, such as food stamps.

Standing up around the Gardner Auditorium, members of clubhouses, which secure employment, housing, education and mental health services to patients, aised an orange sign that read “Clubhouse works, fund DMH,” a reference to the Department of Mental Health.

Justin Horner, a member of the Bayridge Clubhouse in Hyannis, asked for $3.8 million in additional funding in the DMH budget to support the 32 clubhouses in the state.

“It is time to take action, we’re tired of settling for less. The DMH budget cannot afford to be cut anymore in order to serve adults with mental illness the way they should be served, like human beings,” said Horner, who said the clubhouse line item has been level funded for “several years.”

Valerie Bassett, director of intergovernmental relations and public health advocacy for the Boston Public Health Commission, asked EOHHS officials to maintain last year’s increase of $5 million to the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services.

In addition, Bassett asked for another $5 million to fund HIV/AIDS prevention programs and another $250,000 for the Health Disparities Council, which works to wipe out health disparities among social, economic and racial groups. “Year after year, data show a persistent gap between the health of white people and the health of people of color in Massachusetts,” said Bassett.

Geoffrey Wilkinson, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, suggested “low cost” initiatives to improve the quality of life of residents in the state.

“With a stroke of his pen the governor can sign an executive order to remove toxic chemicals from our homes, workplaces and communities,” he said. Wilkinson also asked the state to get “junk food and soda out of schools” and promote workforce development for community health workers.

Carol Trust, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers, said she is worried about the quality of social workers in the Department of Social Services and urged the state to further demand educational qualifications for such positions.

“DSS social workers are not required to participate in continuing education, as are all other licensed social workers,” said Trust.

Former gubernatorial candidate from the Green Rainbow Party Grace Ross testified in favor of more prevention and early intervention initiatives for substance abuse to curb the cost of “on demand” treatment and incarceration. She also suggested the state looks into costs that could have been waived by the federal government.

Advocates for the elderly, disabled, and veterans pressed their case for funding and attention.

In her testimony, the Association for the Advancement of Retired Persons’ (AARP) director of advocacy Jessica Constantino acknowledged the tight budget the state faces.

“But that will not deter us from seeking our goals within budgetary constraints,” she said. “The aging population of Massachusetts will continue to grow along with its unique issues related to health and long term care needs.”

Echoing other testimony on elder affairs, Constantino called for full funding of the Prescription Advantage program, implementation of the health care reform law, prevention of hospital-acquired infections, and for home services and nursing facilities.

“The state must increase its support for home and community-based care options, but not at the expense of appropriate funding for facility-based providers,” said Scott Plumb, senior vice president for the Massachusetts Extended Care Federation, which represents 500 long-term care facilities. “Robbing Peter to pay Paul would be a shortsighted strategy that would destabilize the long-term care system.”

Saying nursing homes have “changed dramatically” in the last 20 years, Plumb said the average length of stay for residents is now less than six months, “The image of the nursing home as a place on the hill where people go to die is a vestige of the past,” he said.

Some had praise for the agencies. Ralph Cooper, executive director of the Veterans Benefits Clearinghouse Inc. in Roxbury, said the state Veterans Affairs office is the “best in the whole US” as the federal agency is cutting back on services for men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Others pushed for a pay raise for personal care attendants to $13 an hour, $1.5 million in new funding for services overseen by the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, and a new $350,000 line item to continue a training program to help caregivers deal with LGBT elders.

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