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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Speakers mull meaning of debt deal at Nashua forum

NASHUA – Stephen Gorin’s interest in studying entitlement programs has, until now, been primarily academic. With his 65th birthday coming in a few weeks, Gorin recently received his Medicare card in the mail and things are starting to get real.

“All of a sudden, it hit home,” Gorin said. “I don’t know how much longer this program will be there in its current form.”

Gorin, executive director of the state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, was one of three speakers at the Nashua Public Library on Wednesday focused on understanding the impact of the debt ceiling negotiation in Washington, D.C. Although a compromise was reached just before the default deadline, Gorin and other speakers said the nation’s economic problems are far from solved.

Contrary to what some argue, Gorin said the nation can afford programs aimed at ensuring the well-being of the elderly, the disabled and those living in poverty.

“We don’t really have an entitlement crisis. What we do have is a health care crisis, and unless we resolve that, we’re not going to be able to fix Medicare or Medicaid,” he said.

The discussion, titled “Workshop on the Essential Budget,” drew about 20 people. It was hosted by the New Hampshire Citizens Alliance and Working Families Win, both nonprofit organizations that claim to be nonpartisan.

Panelists discussed some of the ways the debt ceiling compromise could impact programs that create a safety net for citizens in need. Deb Fournier, with the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute, said while entitlement programs weren’t affected in the compromise, it’s not the end of the story. A committee has been established to find another $1.5 trillion in cuts, and serious damage could be done, she said.

“Anything is on the table,” Fournier said. “There are no protections for any entitlement programs.”

If the savings aren’t found by the committee’s deadline, it will trigger automatic cuts that could affect Medicare provider reimbursements and access, she said.

MaryLou Beaver, with Every Child Matters New Hampshire, spoke about the negative effect cuts to Medicaid might have on low-income children. Last year, Medicaid covered 6 million claims in the state, including 131,000 dental visits for low-income children, she said.

“Any cuts to Medicaid would increase costs for states and local communities,” she said.

The discussion looked at cuts made at the state level as well. Fournier talked about the impact of the New Hampshire Legislature’s decision to cut funding to the Disproportionate Share Hospital Program in half. The decision has led to massive layoffs and program cuts at hospitals across the state, but Fournier said it ultimately will force them to shift costs to those who have private insurance.

In a question-and-answer session, Dolores Davis of Nashua asked whether the federal government is obligated to pay back the money it is borrowing from entitlement programs to pay for other things.

“As long as we’re a democracy, they’re going to have to pay it back,” Gorin said.

Davis said she was disenchanted by the tone of the debate over the debt ceiling.

“I don’t think there was a solution,” she said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

Attendees were encouraged to write letters to the editors of local newspapers. There was also an explainer sheet for “bird-dogging” the presidential candidates coming to the state for the primary.

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or mbrindley@nashuatelegraph.com.