A day after inundating his office with more than 1,800 phone calls, after two weeks of decrying his budget cuts, the Connecticut Community Providers Association hosted Gov. Dannel P. Malloy at its annual meeting Thursday to give him an award.

No, there’s no punch line.

The award recognized Malloy for his leadership in preparing Connecticut for health reform. Plans for it predated the more than $120 million in cuts his administration made last month, some of which will hit the nonprofit social service providers the association represents.

If the setting was awkward, the governor didn’t acknowledge it. He used it as a chance to remind the audience that, unlike most of his counterparts, he addressed the budget deficit he inherited two years ago by both raising taxes and “strategic and surgical” cuts.

If Gov. Dannel Malloy felt awkward accepting an award from the state’s nonprofit health-care and social-service providers, he didn’t show it.

Then he got to the elephant in the room — the talks going on with legislative leaders to find $242 million in additional savings to close a projected deficit. The social service providers, who contract with the state to serve people with disabilities and mental health and substance abuse issues, are expecting to be targeted.

“Listen, I can’t appear at this audience and not acknowledge that that’s what’s on a lot of your minds,” Malloy said. “But I could also not appear here without telling you that we in state government will do everything we can to make sure that we continue to provide the highest levels of services possible, and we do that in our own strategic way, working with our strategic partner. That’s you.”

He said his administration would do its best to make sure that high-level services would be delivered an affordable price, and that the agencies could be sustained.

He didn’t offer specifics, but David Burnett did.

The CEO of Norwich’s Reliance House, which serves adults with mental health, addiction and developmental disabilities, Burnett said he knew the governor understood the nonprofit sector.

But he asked Malloy to think about the circumstances his agency faces: 15 years with less-than-adequate cost-of-living adjustments. Five years without a raise in state funding. Skyrocketing health insurance costs — up 39 percent last year, and now, they’re going up another 32 percent.

He learned about that last increase just before getting word that his agency could face up to 5 percent in cuts from the state.

“I don’t know what you do with this information, except just know that we continue to pursue and pursue effectively, I might add, our missions,” Burnett said. “Please respect that and do the best you can for us.”

“You’re very kind to put it that way because I struggle with the obligations of this office on a regular basis,” Malloy replied. “I don’t have one job, I have a bunch of jobs. And I fully understand what you’re saying and, quite frankly, I want to do something about it.”

“I’d love to be the governor of Connecticut in good times,” he added.

The governor noted that he’s facing “some of the same challenges you’re facing,” citing higher-than-expected Medicaid costs. He said he hears similar appeals from his wife, who used to run a rape-crisis center and now runs the Greater Hartford Arts Council.

“Whether I do a good job or not, I can’t answer,” Malloy said. “But I’m going to tell you I’m going to continue to do the best job I possibly can.”

Some of those in the audience said they appreciated Malloy’s understanding of their dilemma. But they weren’t confident it would translate into being spared from additional cuts.

“I think theoretically he understands,” said Diane Manning, president and CEO of United Services, which provides mental health and substance abuse treatment and serves survivors of domestic violence and child abuse in northeastern Connecticut.

“On the street, we’re dealing with very, very difficult issues and individuals who have nowhere else to turn but to us. And I’m having to turn them away,” she added.

Manning said her agency already has waiting lists for community support programs for adults with mental-health and substance-abuse issues. With the first round of cuts the administration announced, she has frozen positions, and anticipates having to cut some, which would lead to at least 300 people waiting for services.

Sheila Amdur, interim CEO of the community providers association, said she understands the challenges Malloy is facing. But she said the problem is what’s not on the table for cuts. The governor has limited ability to lay off state workers or cut state employee benefits. He’s said he doesn’t want to target education or municipal aid, and he said he won’t raise taxes. That leaves the nonprofit social service providers, whose state contracts account for close to $1.5 billion in state spending, as among the few places that can be easily cut.

“When I ran a community mental health center and I had a deficit, everything was on the table but the health and safety of the people I served. That was never on the table,” Amdur said. “That’s all that’s on the table here.”

Amdur said she’s heard from providers who already have plans to lay off workers if budget plans don’t change.

“They’re going to close services. They’re going to reduce other services. We can’t possibly serve the people we’ve been serving and we can’t do it at the same intensity of services,” Amdur said. “It’s sort of foolishness to think that we can do that.”

Amdur said Malloy deserved commendation for his leadership in health reform, the official reason he was there. She noted that 200,000 to 300,000 people in the state will gain health insurance in just over a year because of it.

“The issue is, where is that infrastructure going to be to serve all those new people?” she  said.

Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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