Protesters at governor's open house say health department cuts will imperil lives


ANNAPOLIS -- Inside the Governor's Mansion yesterday a chorus was belting out a medley of cheerful Christmas standards, from "Jingle Bells" to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," providing entertainment to a steady stream of Marylanders attending the annual holiday open house.

But as far as the crowd of more than 200 angry protesters just outside was concerned, the man at the end of the official receiving line might as well have been the Grinch instead of Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

The protesters, who were armed with placards and megaphones, gathered to express their outrage at the Schaefer administration's decision to trim at least $9 million from several Department of Health and Mental Hygiene programs as part of a broader $180 million deficit reduction package.

But thousands of other people did not have protests, deficits or tax proposals on their minds as they walked through the restored mansion to look at its yuletide decorations, listen to carolers singing from the spiral staircase, and shake hands with Mr. Schaefer and his longtime companion and official hostess, Hilda Mae Snoops.

"It was nice," said Joseph Zamostny of Pasadena, who took his 14-year-old daughter, Shannon, to the open house. "I'm glad Governor Schaefer was there. It would have been very easy for him to have the house open and not be there. I'm glad he was there in person."

Those protesting the cuts in health department funding claimed yesterday that the planned cuts will affect treatment to as many as 20,000 kidney patients, AIDS victims, and paralyzed and disabled


Many of those who have depended on state programs to pay for dialysis and medication said they feel that the budget cuts have put them and their families in life-and-death situations.

"People's lives are a little more important than refinishing a mansion that was already refinished," said Mark Hanson, a Severna Park kidney patient in his 20s who receives dialysis three times a week. "I'm very angry. I mean, our lives are on the line."

Mr. Hanson's parents said they will not be able to afford the $11,000

cost of their son's dialysis and medication and feel they will have to "spend down" to below the poverty level in order to qualify for a Medicaid-sponsored assistance program.

Several protesters complained that Mr. Schaefer added insult to injury by refusing to discuss their complaints. When some of them ventured inside the mansion to personally confront the governor, they were promptly shooed away by his security detail.

The governor declined to talk about the protest or budget cuts, although he did accept a petition signed by 800 Eastern Shore residents complaining about the reductions.

Health Secretary Adele Wilzack, who spoke with reporters but did not meet with the protesters, insisted that those affected by the budget cuts would not be refused treatment or medication. She said they would be protected by a "safety net" of insurance or other government programs.

"Governor Schaefer is a humanitarian," said Ms. Wilzack. "Nobody will refuse treatment to people who need it. We feel we're protecting people. We're not abandoning people."

But those waiting outside saw it differently.

"I felt very sad," said Mike Mensch, a wheelchair-bound dialysis patient who recently had a leg amputated. "It felt like he didn't care. Where else are we going to go?"

"It's a terrible Christmas present," said Mr. Mensch's wife, Nancy.

"It makes me sick," said Joseph Morton of Baltimore, whose wife has been on dialysis for the past six months when a kidney transplant failed after 10 years.

"Maryland had a rational program to provide care for kidney patients. What is irrational is for the government to cut the program three weeks before Christmas without a transition. This is an opportunity for the governor to show how compassionate he can be. There are 3,700 kidney patients out there who need help," Mr. Morton said.

The cuts were part of a broad effort by the administration to reduce a deficit in the current year's budget that now has grown to $423 million. Although $180 million of that amount has already been covered through reductions in spending, a hiring freeze, a halt on vehicle and equipment purchases and other actions, millions of dollars in additional cuts still must be made, and Mr. Schaefer has already proposed laying off at least 1,800 state employees.

Ms. Wilzack, anticipating the next round of cuts, said yesterday: "There's more coming. This is a tough time, period."

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