Under a newly proposed budget, the state’s health and human services programs will face an uncertain prognosis, southern New Jersey’s citizen advocates told lawmakers Wednesday.
During the first of a set of public hearings on Gov. Chris Christie’s draft budget, held in Collingswood, Camden County, the Assembly Budget Committee heard from residents and business owners who described potential crises large and small.
Cancer care and assistance for low-income commuters face cuts.
Problems loom for the state’s hospitals, which some advocates said face bankruptcy.
And closer to home, individual families described what would happen if they lost access to key social services.
Among those was Paula Solomon, who told the committee about her 18-year-old daughter Sydney, who has cerebral palsy and is deaf.
“She loves to swim — that’s her favorite thing to do in the world,” said Solomon, a resident of Camden County who brings her family to their vacation home in Ventnor for part of every summer. “Sydney jumps in the ocean every chance she can.”
But Solomon told the committee that planned changes to options for residential care proposed in this year’s budget made her uneasy for the future.
Christie proposes the closing of two residential centers serving the severely disabled, including one in Cumberland County.
But if the money saved by closing state institutions does not fund an alternative solution for housing people such as Sydney, now a young adult, Solomon wonders about her daughter’s future.
“I can’t imagine where my daughter will end up living,” she said.
Christie administration staff said the proposed closing of the west campus of Vineland’s state-run developmental center, which houses a reduced number of just 110 patients, would save $140,000.
Lowell Arye, executive director for the Alliance for Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities, echoed Solomon’s call to go ahead with closing Vineland completely to directly fund better housing options. “Funnel that money back into community alternatives,” he said.
Programs shrink, die
Hospitals will not be spared new cuts: Marge Scanny, who manages cancer community outreach at Shore Memorial Hospital, said a key grant that provides cancer screenings for low-income women would be greatly reduced.
“It’s just $320,000 for us in Atlantic County,” Scanny said. “For that, we provide 400 women with mammograms, and another 800 with cervical cancer screenings.
Meanwhile, Shore Memorial’s entire grant for smoking-prevention will be cut. The hospital runs the only Quit Center close to Atlantic City or points south, designed to encourage patients to give up smoking.
Many hospital administrators praised one point in Christie’s budget — to maintain and increase funds to cover hospital care for the poor, often called “charity care.”
More for ‘charity care’
Suzanne Ianni, president of the Hospital Alliance of New Jersey said the governor achieved that proposed saving by removing a cap on the 0.53 percent state assessment on hospital revenues, and another cap on ambulatory care assessment. That would bring in an extra $45 million dollars, which could be matched with federal funds and distributed to hospitals.
“Urban areas use this most,” she said, adding that AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City “would see a difference for the better.”
Donald Weinbaum, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling, told the committee that a proposed cut of $125,000 to its budget, about 12.5 percent, would hinder their public message “that gambling problems are ... an addictive disorder.”
Carole Miller, of South Jersey Transportation Authority, said that Christie’s draft budget would mean the end to any help for southern New Jersey residents who use subsidized commuter services under a program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.
“That’s all gone, though you can’t see it on paper in the governor’s budget-in-brief,” she said. The program cost $445,000 in state funds, which then received federal matching funds.
Toward the end of the hearing, committee members said their concern had grown for certain vulnerable groups.
“Senior citizens deserve better than to have their property tax relief stripped away while being asked to pay more than double for medication vital to their well-being,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland. His colleague, Celeste Riley, who also represents that district, said in a statement, “The concerns that I’m hearing that have to be addressed include the people who cannot speak for themselves — the people in homes and the disabled — that need our voice.”
But one assembly member felt less swayed.
Assemblyman Joe Malone, R-Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth, Ocean, said, “I wish New Jersey were in a better position to better fund these worthy services, but all of New Jersey must share in the sacrifice as we fix our state that is nearly bankrupt.”
He added, “I am encouraged, however, that today’s troubling stories are similar to the ones we have heard when the state was spending $34.6 billion, which means that Governor Christie’s proposed $29.3 billion budget proposal would minimize impact on the most vulnerable.”
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