Urban says she will recommend eliminating Amistad funds to help restore Medicare cuts

When the state legislature reconvenes Friday to address a $54 million shortfall in the Medicare Savings program, state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said she will recommend that money allocated for the schooner Amistad instead be used to help offset a small portion of the Medicare deficit.

Urban said she has already told her party leaders that she will recommend it cut the $263,000 being given to Discovering Amistad in the current fiscal year and apply it to help offset the defict.

The Medicare program uses Medicaid money to help low-income residents pay medical expenses not covered by Medicare. There are about 171,500 low-income seniors and residents with disabilities enrolled in the program. About 86,000 of them were no longer eligible for the program under decreased limits passed with state budget in October. Another 27,000 would receive reduced benefits under the change. The legislature is considering restoring the money for those losing benefits. The discussions comes amid updated estimates that the state now faces a $224 million deficit in the current budget.

Urban said that preserving money for the Amistad while cutting health care funding for low-income seniors and the disabled “sends the worst possible message to the people of the state of Connecticut.”

“We have a more than $200 million deficit, but yet we still continue to fund the Amistad,” she added. “It’s just not something we should be in the middle of.”

She said that during some recent forums with constituents, they said they expected government to help the disabled and seniors, improve education and protect children but not fund a schooner.

Urban said that while cutting the $263,000 would only be a “drop in the bucket” when it comes to addressing the money lawmakers need to fund the Medicare program and address the state budget deficit, there are programs equal to “50 Amistads” that could be cut from the budget.

Urban, now serving her 10th term, has worked for many years to have the state implement Results Based Accountabilty, a form of budgeting in which only programs that can show they are successful are funded. State officials and lawmakers have opposed her efforts and it has only be implemented on a small pilot basis.

Amistad America, formed in 1998, lost its nonprofit status in 2012 for failing to file three years of tax returns. Nevertheless, the state continued to make annual $360,000 payment to the organization, which fell deeper and deeper into debt, until finally freezing funding for the 2014-15 fiscal year as controversy over the organization’s lack of fiscal accountability intensified. The organization had provided little documentation to the state about how it was spending state money.

Following stories by The Day about how Amistad America had spent the $9 million in state funding, and calls for an investigation by Urban, the state conducted an audit, seized the ship in the summer of 2014 and sold it to Discovering Amistad for $315,000. The state then provided $957,000 to Discovering Amistad so it could purchase and repair the ship.

When Amistad America shut down, it owed more than $2 million to a large group of organizations, banks, individuals and small businesses. Those creditors were never paid despite efforts by Urban to use Amistad funding to do so.

The proposed state budget calls for no state aid in 2018-19, which will force Discovering Amistad to look for more grants and donations from foundations, businesses and individuals, according to Len Miller of Essex, the group’s chairman.

Miller has said his organization is continuing to look for outside funding because it cannot rely on receiving any state aid due to the state’s fiscal problems.

 “The new board is responsible, but I’m sorry, it’s time to cut them loose," Urban said.

“The Amistad is an amazing story. It warrants our full attention, but that does not mean taxpayers should be paying for it,” she said. “They should be going to Steven Spielberg (who directed the "Amistad" movie), Wall Street or the New York Yacht Club for funding.”

j.wojtas@theday.com

 

 

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