Roughly 100 people crowded into a conference room Thursday at St. Vincent Healthcare to express their concerns about potential cuts to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services as state legislators prepare to even up a multi-million dollar shortfall in the state’s budget.
A current proposal has the state health department cutting $105 million over two years, which could result in $136 million lost in federal funding.
The listening session was sponsored by nonprofits The Arc Montana and Parents Let’s Unite for Kids, both of which advocate for people with special needs.
Sen. Mary Caferro of Helena told The Gazette earlier in the week that all Billings-area legislators were invited. In attendance and seated at a long table in the front of the conference room in the Mansfield Education Center were Rep. Barry Usher, Rep. Peggy Webb, Sen. Roger Webb, Sen. Margie MacDonald, Sen. Mary McNally, Rep. Kelly McCarthy, Sen. Doug Kary and Sen. Tom Richmond.
Microphones were brought around the room to people who wished to comment and several speakers were brought to tears as they explained the ways in which DPHHS-funded programs and services have helped them or could help others.
Brothers Brian and Mike Craighill sat next to each other and each took the microphone at different points. Brian Craighill said he has a mental illness and is disabled. “Through case management I’ve been able to hold down an apartment, hold down a checkbook,” he said. “Without case management I wouldn’t be able to do that.”
“I ask that these services not be cut because I really need them.”
Mike Craighill discussed potential economic issues that could be caused by cuts. Craighill and his wife Antonia Craighill own multiple Soup and Such restaurants with locations in Billings and Bozeman.
“I would first like to speak to you today today as a small business owner, someone whom many of you feel bent on protecting,” Craighill said. “As a business we require a vibrant healthy and safe community so that our customers feel financially secure and physically safe enough to spendm oney with us. If these cuts do lead to higher homelessness, poverty, mental health issues and eventually crime, our ability to do business is curtailed.”
Speaking of his brother, Craighill called him “one of the greatest humans” that he knows.
“He relies on more than few of these services that will be cut under this proposition. I cringe when I hear the term ‘entitlement program.’ Brian is loving, funny, selfless, compassionate person and is anything but entitled. He is however, an expert on all things related to the Denver Broncos.
Twyla Kannegiesser described how she changed career paths in college when her severely disabled sister died in a nursing home. Kannegiesser said she worked as a family support specialist for more than 14 years and currently works as a coordinator for self-directed and in-home personal care.
Kannegiesser was 10 when her sister was born with severe cerebral palsy in 1979, she said.
“She was the world to me,” Kannegieser said. “She had to have feedings for her first year every two hours. I was given the 10 p.m. and midnight feedings at 10 years old. And I was crushing medications and putting them in her tube.”
Kannegiesser said she believes her sister might still be alive had there been Medicaid waivers at the time to help the family sustain in-home care, which she said is considerably cheaper than nursing home care.
“My sister would be 38 today,” she said. “She would’ve just had her birthday in October."
After she finished telling her personal story, Kannegiesser described her fear for her own safety and that of others should DPHHS face cuts.
“We’re going to kill each other if we don’t have targeted case management for people who have mental health issues,” Kannegiesser said. “We’re going to kill each other in the United States before ISIS gets us. That’s the way I feel.”
One woman in attendance, Natacha Brister, described how Medicaid waiver program waitlists are so extensive she has sent her mildly autistic son to California for treatment and her brother with severe Down syndrome to Oregon for care.
"When they say these budget cuts are going to kill people, they don't just mean physically," Brister said. "Being away from my child is the hardest thing I've had to do. It's not like he's across the state and I can drive on my weekends to go see him. He's thirteen-hundred miles away from me."