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Another Social Service Agency Hit By Budget Bomb

Helen Ubinas

March 18, 2010

I probably should have done what a colleague suggested and asked Dr. Mark Mitchell if he had an inhaler handy.

But I figured it was best to just break the bad news to him.

"You're not getting the money," I told the president of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice.

"Oh my God," Mitchell said after a long moment of stunned silence. "I don't know what we're going to do."

A day earlier, Mitchell and I talked about a $130,000 grant for an asthma outreach and education program which after surviving a line-item veto by Gov. M. Jodi Rell was approved by the legislature in August.

Seven months later, this week, they were still waiting for the money.

Figuring they were just another organization whose funds were stuck in political limbo, I made a few calls. Doug Whiting, spokesman for House Speaker Christopher Donovan, said the holdup seemed to be with the state Department of Public Health, which administers the contract. Calls to DPH went nowhere fast, but Mitchell said they told him the funds were stalled at Rell's budget office.

And then late in the day Wednesday, the Office of Policy and Management finally dropped the bomb.

"We're denying the contract," OPM spokesman Jeffrey Beckham told me.

And then I got a crash course in Rell budgeting that boiled down to: Don't blame the governor. Not her fault.

The legislature may have approved funds for programs like these, Beckham said. But in the same budget, they demanded $95 million in cuts in non-direct-care contracts.

OK, but why did they leave an organization twisting in the wind for seven months before finally pulling the plug on the very day a reporter called about the long overdue money? That's seven months the coalition could have used to find another source of funding.

And why was I the one breaking the news to the poor guy?

Beckham said OPM received the contract in late January. He also said OPM advised state agencies months ago that the budget required administrative savings that would impact their own operations as well as contracts that they administer. Apparently DPH forgot to tell the coalition that.

Continuing my Messenger of Doom duties, I called the speaker's spokesperson back. Whiting insisted the governor had other options. He said they are now questioning whether she has the authority to cut the funds.

That's all fine and good. But meanwhile, the coalition is left reeling, and once again it's the poor and vulnerable paying the price.

Asthma is a major health crisis in Connecticut especially in urban areas.

It's the leading cause of kids missing school and their parents missing work, Mitchell said. And yes, I know there are programs that work with people already seeking care. But this program targets low-income people, communities of color, people on Medicaid and the uninsured with a preventive program that wait for it saves money. And since this is all about money, consider this:

Millions in public money is spent each year in hospitalization and emergency room costs to treat asthma. In Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport, the number of hospitalization and emergency room visits are two to three times higher than the state average.

And here's the kicker, Mitchell said: If the coalition's outreach program reduces emergency room visits by only one-half of 1 percent, it will have saved the state the cost of the program.

Or put another way: For about what the state pays for a single deputy commissioner, they could improve the health and lives of thousands of its residents.

But then, this isn't just about one program. The coalition may now have to close its doors. In addition to outreach, the money also covers a third of the operating budget for a 12-year-old organization that helped pass Connecticut's first environmental justice law.

After composing himself, Mitchell called me back.

"We're very shocked,'" he said. "We really believe we're saving the state money and we just don't understand."

They're not the only ones.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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