CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A tax rebate program for eligible elderly and disabled people is among the proposed cuts in the Wyoming Department of Health's 2015-2016 budget.
The department administers the program, which grew in cost from $3 million in 2005 to nearly $10 million in 2011 because of legislative changes.
During the same period, the number of rebates paid out increased from 3,059 to 6,426.
"This program does not provide an essential health benefit to Wyoming citizens, and this will allow cuts to other essential programs to be lessened," the department's outline of budget cuts reads.
The department presented its proposed spending cuts for the 2014, 2015 and 2016 fiscal years to the Joint Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
The cuts are being considered because of gloomy revenue forecasts largely the result of slumping natural-gas prices.
Department of Health Director Tom Forslund said he gave priority to safety net programs while trimming his budget to meet the requirements of the Legislature and the governor's office.
The tax rebate program doesn't fit into that category, he said.
The department, he said, receives many calls in December from people who want to know when they will get their $700 rebate check so they can buy Christmas presents.
"I'm not saying the program has no value," Forslund said. "But not as much as paying for someone who needs medical care."
Sen. Curt Meier, R-LaGrange, a committee member, said the rebate check might be enabling some elderly recipients to stay in their homes, rather than go into long-term care facilities. If that happens, it would cost the department more money in the long run, he said.
Meier said the Department of Health isn't the only agency that runs a pass-through program like the tax rebate.
"It's a painless cut for you guys," Meier said.
Forslund countered that there were no painless cuts in the department's budget because they all affect people.
The tax rebate program was assigned years ago to the department to run. It was created to help elderly and disabled people with their property and sales taxes.
Since then, the Legislature has eliminated the sales tax on groceries and limited property taxes through exemptions and credits while creating assistance programs like the LIEAP home heating assistance program.
Each year, Forslund said, the department must hire temporary help to process the applications and mail out the rebate checks.
The department also must pay the required statutory amount for all eligible applicants regardless of whether there is sufficient funding to pay for those rebates. There is no cap on the number of people who may qualify for rebates in a given year.
Forslund also presented a report on a study of Medicaid options to control the cost of the program for low-income, disabled and elderly people.
He will present the Medicaid report at the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee meeting in Casper on Monday and Tuesday.