The Department of Public Health and Human Services building in Helena.

The Department of Public Health and Human Services building in Helena

The state health department Thursday objected to cutting the funding for about 100 positions from its budget, a move lawmakers are pursuing in order to find money for other services.

Director Sheila Hogan, who heads the Department of Public Health and Human Services, said the cuts would make permanent a decrease in services originally intended to be a temporary belt-tightening measure two years ago. The positions in the health department are vacant, some for several years.

Back in 2017, as state revenues came in lower than projected and the Legislature came into a special session to reduce spending, agencies across state government left jobs open in an effort to save money.

That led to things like the closures of offices around the state that helped people apply for public assistance and aided people paying their taxes. Wait times to get help from the state increased, and caseloads for employees who work with citizens went up.

Now as lawmakers in Helena craft the state budget for the next two years, they are proposing to cut the funding for many positions that were left open and use the money to pay for other programs and services.

The Legislature's fiscal division shows lawmakers want to cut the equivalent of about 235 full-time positions across all of state government from the budget Gov. Steve Bullock proposed. 

Cutting 100 positions from the health department would save about $8.8 million. Lawmakers instead are directing that money toward increasing the rates paid to providers who work with the state's sick, elderly and disabled. Those rates were reduced during 2017's budget crisis.

Rep. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, chaired the budget subcommittee that dealt with the health department. Moore said Thursday that lawmakers attempted to reach out to department leadership several times about the proposal to cut the positions but did not get any response. 

"The first feedback that I've heard on that was today," Moore said of lawmakers' efforts to reach out to the department on the proposed cuts. Others on the committee also expressed frustration at not getting feedback earlier.

Hogan said in response to questions from lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee that the health department spent the first half of the legislative session working with the budget subcommittee that shaped the agency's budget, explaining what each division and employees in it do.

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"The information was shared," Hogan said.

Tom Livers, who is the budget director for Bullock, was also critical of the cuts across all of state government. Livers said agencies met budget targets in 2017 by keeping jobs open and that led to longer wait times, delays in services and a loss of local presence. If the cuts are made, that institutionalizes those problems, Livers said.

The House Appropriations Committee will hold another hearing Friday on House Bill 2, which is the state budget. The plan is to vote on the budget early next week and send it to the House floor for debate in mid-March.

In its current form, the budget proposed by lawmakers is $32.6 million in general fund dollars less than what Bullock proposed. That's a decrease of about 0.8 percent.

There are also several major pieces of the budget puzzle that are not yet accounted for, most notably Medicaid expansion. That program is set to expire this summer unless lawmakers choose to extend it, which is expected. However, bills to do so have still not been debated by lawmakers as the Legislature starts its second half.

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State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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