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Freefall in services

Budget cuts take their toll on Pikes Peak regions needy

Agencies that serve needy children, the homeless and people with psychiatric problems say cuts they've made in recent years will likely worsen in the aftermath of the budget passed last week by Congress.

"We have grave concerns and are trying to do the best we can," said Cynthia Zupanec, a spokeswoman for Pikes Peak Mental Health, of recent federal and state cuts. "We're taking another look and another look and another look to see what we can do."

The nonprofit that serves patients in seven counties around Colorado Springs treated 2,471 uninsured patients in 2003. Today, the agency serves less than a third that number at the same time the region's population is quickly rising.

Bob Holmes, director of Homeward Pikes Peak, which works with the region's homeless, accused the feds of shifting costs to local governments that don't have the funds. His nonprofit is dealing with an 80 percent reduction in federal money this year to a program that places chronically homeless people into their own homes.

Medicaid bloodletting

Many fear services will continue to erode following Congress' passage of a budget that supporters say will help shore up the deficit.

Deborah Weinstein, director of the Coalition on Human Needs, a nonpartisan nonprofit in Washington, D.C., lamented the $106 billion in tax cuts that were included in the budget as a payoff to the wealthy while ignoring the plight of needy Americans.

"People who are poor don't have all that much political clout," she said. "That is what is happening."

Weinstein's top concern is the five-year, $10-billion bloodletting of Medicaid, a government insurance program for low-income families. Colorado's Republican senator and Congress members, including Rep. Joel Hefley of Colorado Springs, voted for the budget. The state's Democrats voted against it.

The cuts will likely worsen the nation's growing uninsured crisis, Weinstein added. According to recently released federal statistics, 770,000 Coloradans have no health insurance, adding tens of thousands to the list in just three years.

Striking a deal

Critics say the situation has been exacerbated by Colorado's strict limitations on spending.

Democrats, working with Republican Gov. Bill Owens, hope to help. In April, the sides struck a deal to ask voters in November whether over the next five years the state ought to keep $3.1 billion more than otherwise allowed under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. Voters, who would be giving away their refund checks, would also decide if the state should borrow $1.7 million to restore or save services.

All 12 Republican legislators from El Paso County oppose the plan and promise to fight, but a wide coalition is supporting the idea.

Yet even if the plan gets a green light, it would not return services to levels they were at just a few years ago, prior to the economic downturn that led Colorado legislators to slash spending.

It is unclear exactly how federal Medicaid and other reductions, including those expected for food stamps, will be implemented, Weinstein noted. But they are almost certain to leave some states facing an insurmountable gap.

"The neediest people will very possibly lose food, have even less access to medical care and other assistance," Weinstein said. "These are the wrong choices."

-- Michael de Yoanna

Big numbers

770,000: The number of Coloradans without health insurance

$10 billion: Five-year cuts by Congress last week to Medicaid, insurance for people with low incomes

$61.9 million: The impact of uninsured people and reductions in federal health dollars in 2004 to city-owned Memorial Hospital

1,836: The number of uninsured people with mental illnesses that Pikes Peak Mental Health says it can no longer serve because of recent budget cuts

80 percent: The reduction in funds to Homeward Pikes Peak to help chronically

homeless people

Source: Independent research

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