Lawmakers To Meet Next Week To Restore Medicare Help Program

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — State lawmakers plan to restore funding next week to a program that helps tens of thousands of senior citizens cover Medicare-related expenses, but are still gearing up to address the state's latest budget deficit.

Democratic State Comptroller Kevin Lembo recently projected the state will end the current fiscal year on June 30 with a $207.8 million deficit, which is more than 1 percent of the state's main spending account. Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's budget office estimates the deficit is now $222.5 million.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, a Democrat from Berlin, said legislative leaders plan to work over the coming weeks on a deficit-cutting package. They expect to get a glimpse of the up-to-date deficit figure on Jan. 15, when budget offices for the governor and the General Assembly release an agreed-upon state revenue estimate.

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"It's a large problem," Aresimowicz said. "We will take a look at it but it's nothing we can handle in the immediate. We really felt as though the Medicare savings program, which affects about 140,000 seniors in our state immediately … We promised them we'd take action and that's our intention on the 4th."

The House and Senate met briefly on Friday for a technical legislative session and announced next week's plans to replenish the $54 million spending cut they originally made to the Medicare savings program in the new, bipartisan, two-year $41.3 billion budget. Aresimowicz said the money will come from various cuts and savings from certain budget line items, including state employee overtime. But he said the plan hasn't yet been finalized.

Malloy this week urged lawmakers to address the deficit in the upcoming special session. If they only expect to restore funding for the Medicare savings plan, he said "it's imperative that the additional expenditure is offset with real and achievable savings."

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House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, a Republican from Derby, said lawmakers feel there's an urgency to shore up the Medicare program, even though the state Department of Social Services agreed to temporarily delay plans to reduce eligibility for at least two months. Up to 113,000 seniors and people with disabilities may be affected with a full or partial benefit loss, as the program helps pay for things like premiums.

DSS and state lawmakers say they've received calls in recent weeks from many residents worried about losing the assistance.

"We come back and change things all the time," said Klarides, when asked if lawmakers underestimated the backlash they've received about the cut. "If we do not help people when we have the ability to help them, we have no business being in this building."

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Lawmakers have also received complaints about cuts in municipal aid that Malloy recently made to cover a gap that was built into the budget. Aresimowicz said the leaders won't address that issue until they discuss how to solve the budget deficit.

-By Susan Haigh, Associated Press

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