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Debt Deal May Cut Westport Social Services

WESTPORT, Conn. – State energy assistance programs that help about 260 Westport families heat their homes during the winter are at the mercy of Congress' debt ceiling deal, news Sue Lebrija of Westport's Department of Human Services finds unsettling.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy says massive cuts by 2013 to vital state programs and services resulting from the deal will have a "devastating" long-term impact on the state's poorest and most vulnerable residents. That's also the assessment of some of Connecticut's seven-member Congressional delegation, which split 4-3 in favor of the plan to end the debt ceiling crisis.

"It's just so new and out-of-the-box that we're not sure how [the debt deal] will affect us," Lebrija said. "We're very concerned about the energy assistance programs because so many people count them. We still don't know if these programs will be cut, but we've heard rumors."

If these programs are cut, the award money qualified applicants receive to heat their homes would be reduced. The department, Lebrija said, would then have to supplement these state awards with money from non-state programs like Westport Warm-Up, which is funded entirely through community donations.

Along with energy assistance, Lebrija said a state renter's rebate program may also be at risk. This assistance is offered to seniors 65 and older or people who receive Social Security disability who rent. Rebate checks may be delayed, Lebrija said, or may be for less money.

The debt deal, which raises the country's debt ceiling, includes $917 billion in immediate spending reductions, with a special bi-partisan commission yet to be established responsible for finding $1.5 trillion in savings or revenue enhancements, such as new taxes.

U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, said while it wasn't the deal he wanted, he voted in favor of the plan to avoid a "catastrophic," first-ever government default.

"The Republicans control the House of Representatives and Tea Party Republicans were willing to push this country over the financial cliff for political motives," Himes said, adding he has requested to be named to the Congressional panel that will decide where most of the cuts are made. "But this fight is far from over."

Malloy said he is worried most about federal aid for Medicaid, a program that includes health insurance for the disabled and nursing home costs for the elderly. While he said the state will receive about the same amount of funding for Medicaid over the next two years—$9.3 billion—cuts could "be devastating in post 2013." Though the deal will likely exempt Medicaid from rate increases, Medicare could be impacted as part of the commission's decisions, as well as Social Security and food stamps.

Although Lebrija said there isn't much the department can do to prepare for possible cuts, clients have been urged to sign up for a home energy audit offered through the Neighbor to Neighbor Home Energy Challenge . Work performed during the assessment improves a home's energy efficiency, and that can result in lower utility bills, Lebrija said.

"We're hoping the funding comes through for these programs, especially the energy assistance," she said. "If not, we'll be looking for a greater response from the community to help fund Westport Warm-Up."

Anyone interested in supporting the Westport Warm-Up fund may send checks to the Department of Human Services, 110 Myrtle Avenue, Room 200. Checks can be payable to "Westport Warm-Up Fund."

Are you worried about how cuts to state programs and services could impact you? Leave a comment below.

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