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Budget regrets in the time of swine flu

Post by Kim Bradford on May 5, 2009 at 7:31 pm |
May 5, 2009 7:31 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

Swine flu is keeping state Rep. Deb Wallace up at night, and for good reason.

Wallace has not caught the dread virus, nor is she a health care worker trying to halt its spread. She’s just one of many Democrats who voted for a state budget that slashed $1 billion from health care programs.

Days before the Legislature adjourned April 26, swine flu hit the news. No sooner had lawmakers packed their bags for home than the nation’s public health agencies were on high alert.

Wallace, sleepless in Vancouver, dashed off an e-mail to her fellow Democrats at 4:20 one morning last week. Someone forwarded it to The News Tribune’s man in Olympia, Joe Turner.

"Many of you are probably having the same 3 a.m. thought that awoke me in the middle of the night," Wallace wrote, explaining that she’d been reading up on pandemics.

"Although politically difficult, I think this is the time to look at further reductions (reduced work week or other reductions) to buy back the health care coverage of the thousands we eliminated."

The Legislature may or may not get a chance for a redo this year. Legislative leaders are still negotiating the details of a possible special session. But should lawmakers head back to Olympia in coming weeks, Wallace’s suggestion should be on the agenda.

The two-year budget set to take effect July 1 will swell the ranks of the uninsured. The state’s Basic Health Program alone will have to drop at least 35,000 people or one-third of its rolls.

People who don’t have insurance are less likely to get treatment and more likely to spread disease. Those who do seek care will flood community health clinics and hospital emergency rooms at a time when both are trying to weather cuts to their own funding.

Health care advocates predict that the result will be layoffs at community health care clinics, making patients wait longer for care and diverting more people to emergency rooms, where the price of their care is reflected in higher medical costs for us all.

Meanwhile, the ability of front-line disease fighters in public health agencies to stop outbreaks is slowly eroding. The state’s health departments are set to receive another $4 million cut to the discretionary funds that form the basis of all communicable disease control work.

Skimping on health care is false savings. The costs are always greater once disease has gained a foothold. Wallace is right to challenge her fellow lawmakers to review their priorities.

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