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Amid protest, GOP officials from Erie, Niagara counties tout Collins Medicaid plan

Rep. Chris Collins said Saturday he will work to preserve funding for the federal programs that serve Western New York and were targets of cuts in President Trump's budget message.

But the Clarence Republican said it is too soon to worry about the fate of popular programs such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative or Meals on Wheels because Trump's message is a preliminary statement. Congress still must approve the 12 appropriations bills that fund the federal government.

"What I can assure folks is I'm going to be fighting for our Great Lakes funding. I can make sure there's not going to be, under my watch, a cut in Meals on Wheels funding," Collins told reporters Saturday at Old County Hall. "Again, these budget messages are just that, a message. And people should not read anything more into that."

Collins addressed Trump's budget message after a news conference where 10 Republican officials from Erie and Niagara counties praised the congressman's plan for states to assume the cost of Medicaid from counties.

Counties have pushed for years for the state to take over the full costs of the program, which provides assistance for low-income and disabled people, because they say state-mandated coverage has driven up expenses the counties can't control.

Collins said he hopes his plan will be included in a master amendment to the final version of the GOP's American Health Care Act when the House votes on the bill Thursday, though that is not a guarantee.

Not everyone is sold on Collins' Medicaid proposal, or his party's plans for health care reform. Outside Old County Hall, about 70 protesters marched, chanted and carried signs with anti-Collins messages.

"I'm out here today for everybody who needs health care. I think everybody should have affordable health care," said Janet Lenichek, of Amherst, a part-time registered dietitian for an agency that receives Medicaid and Medicare funding.

Preliminary or not, Trump's budget message, released last week, stirred concern because it outlines hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to programs that serve the Rust Belt.

Collins on Saturday did not specifically address Trump's proposal to stop funding the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps heat the homes of nearly 100,000 families in Erie County.

But he did say he opposes the proposed elimination of the program that funded the Buffalo River cleanup.

"The number of members of Congress who represent the five Great Lakes is such a large number, and we are united, Republicans and Democrats, together, that the leaders in Congress know that you would never get an appropriations bill through that cuts Great Lakes Restoration funding," Collins said.

Collins said the federal government covers 30 percent of the cost of the Meals on Wheels program, which helps deliver meals to senior citizens in their homes, funding that comes through the Department of Health and Human Services. He said the Trump budget message proposes cutting the Community Development Block Grant program.

"That is the press with fake news, going crazy, when in fact there's no suggestion of any cut whatsoever, not dollar one, to the funding on Meals on Wheels," Collins said. "This might impact a grant that a facility might apply for every six years to get a new refrigerator."

However, Trump's budget message proposes a nearly 18 percent cut to Health and Human Services, so it is possible the Administration for Community Living, which provides funding for nutrition programs for seniors, would face a hit, Jenny Bertolette, a Meals on Wheels America spokeswoman, told the Washington Post.

As for Collins' Medicaid proposal, counties pay about 13 percent of the cost of Medicaid in New York. Under his plan, Albany would pick up the counties' share of Medicaid in counties outside New York City, costing the state $2.3 billion, or 1.5 percent of its budget.

Saturday afternoon, Collins said Erie County spends $203 million, or 83 percent of its tax levy, on Medicaid, an amount equal to $1,000 on the tax bill of every property owner.

Stefan I. Mychajliw, Erie County's comptroller, said taxpayers and users of roads would benefit if Collins' plan becomes law.

"We would give them a massive amount of tax relief, and then repair our crumbling infrastructure," Mychajliw said at the news conference.

However, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, earlier this month sharply criticized Collins' plan, saying it would "wreak havoc on the state."

Collins, Hochul battle over Medicaid plan

The protest was organized late Friday once Sarah Buckley, a registered nurse and member of Communications Workers of America, Local 1168, found out about the news conference, and she spread word through text messages and a Facebook group.

She and  fellow health-care union members brought out the CWA's inflatable "fat cat," who is dressed in a business suit and holds a nurse by the neck. Many protesters held signs saying, "Healthcare Not Wealthcare."

"Every time there's been a cut to Medicaid, we really feel it at the bedside, and our patients really feel it," said Buckley, who works for Kaleida Health.

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