Agencies, Residents Fear Cuts in Funding; Gov. Sonny Perdue's 2005 Budget Meant to Save State Millions, but Changes Could Hurt Education and Healthcare Services

Article excerpt

Byline: DAVE WILLIAMS, The Times-Union

ATLANTA -- For Deborah Robinson, Georgia's aid program for children with severe physical or mental disabilities has been a "godsend.''

The Athens mother's teenage son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a little over a year ago. Since last summer, the family has been enrolled in the state's Katie Beckett Waiver Program, which has helped with the enormous costs of two hospitalizations and visits with psychiatrists.

"My husband and I have always worked. We've always had insurance,'' Robinson said last week. "[But] this is a lot of money for a working family to have to pay out of pocket.''

Now, the family is bracing for the possibility that they may have to start paying a premium, based on their income, to stay with the Katie Beckett program.

While charging premiums would have a dramatic impact on many Georgia families, the $1.5 million it would save the state is a minuscule portion of the $800 million in spending cuts throughout Gov. Sonny Perdue's $16.1 billion 2005 budget.

Those reductions mean 7.5 percent less money for most state agencies, in keeping with an order the governor issued last summer. Perdue acted when it became apparent that lagging tax collections were pushing the state toward a budget shortfall for this fiscal year and threatening Georgia's financial outlook for 2005.

"I will not put Georgia in the business of recklessly spending money we don't have and may not get,'' Perdue told lawmakers last week when he presented the budget.

At the same time, the governor was able to carve out of an otherwise tight budget funding for items he has identified as priorities.

Among them: a 2 percent pay raise for Georgia teachers, university faculty and state employees, and the addition of 65 caseworkers to county child-protection offices, to be accomplished through the reassignment of headquarters staff.

Perdue also is asking the General Assembly to sign off on a $1 billion bond package for an array of construction projects.

But most of the attention surrounding the governor's budget is focused on massive spending cuts affecting health care and education, by far the largest cost drivers in state government.

To get a handle on soaring Medicaid bills, Perdue is proposing to eliminate coverage for services not required by the federal government, including adult dental care and prosthetics, for a savings of nearly $9 million.

The state would save another $17.7 million by tightening eligibility requirements for Medicaid, the joint state-federal health program for the poor and disabled.

The budget would extend coverage only to families with incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $34,040 for a family of four.

With the current eligibility level set at 235 percent of the poverty level, the change would cut off an estimated 27,000 of the 1.2 million Georgians on Medicaid.

"Most of these people are pregnant women, infants and women who are receiving breast and cervical cancer treatment,'' said Linda Lowe, a consumer health advocate. "Hospitals are still going to have to treat them. Everybody is going to be worse off.''

PEACHCARE PREMIUMS

Lowe also objects to a proposal to save $10. …