This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
The impact of Washington’s looming $2 billion shortfall is coming into focus, and it is ugly indeed.
Prepping for an emergency legislative budgeting session in November, Gov. Chris Gregoire has asked her department chiefs to tell her what a 10 percent loss of funding would mean for the people their agencies serve.
Susan Dreyfus, secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services, released three scenarios this week. The first scenario includes cuts backed by some kind of logic, however tenuous.
Example: Eliminating beds for 150 patients at Western State Hospital in Lakewood, including people with dementia, traumatic brain injury and histories of violent behavior.
It costs $560 a day to house someone at Western State, which means a lot of money could be saved by placing them elsewhere. But people don’t wind up at Western State by accident; they go there because they have major problems.
James Robinson, a counselor and union president at the hospital, says, “If some of these patients go to a nursing home, they’re going to kill those people.” Those are the words of a labor leader out to protect hospital jobs, but the warning shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.
To make the plan work, DSHS would have to aggressively create and fund community homes that can handle such patients at a lower cost. Those homes don’t exist now, but the idea at least sounds doable.
But consider what DSHS and the state Health Care Authority might have to eliminate under the worst-case scenario:
• Care for 80,000 incapacitated citizens, including the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled.
• Domestic violence intervention that helps protect 4,500 children.
• The entire Basic Health Plan, whose loss would end medical coverage for 36,000 of the working poor.
• Health insurance for thousands of mentally ill and homeless Washingtonians.
• Assistance for 54,000 women with high-risk pregnancies.
A 10 percent cut at DSHS translates into $573 million in the current biennium, which runs through the middle of 2013. But state spending on social welfare is often matched by Congress. Under the 10 percent scenario, the state would forfeit about $300 million in federal funds. The total loss would be nearly $900 million.
There’s no obvious way to protect some of these endangered groups. DSHS’ budget has already been pared back by $2.2 billion, and its staff and management have been reduced despite growing caseloads. Good alternatives don’t exist within the agency, and the usual path of least political resistance – robbing higher education – is also abhorrent.
Nov. 28, the likely date of the special session, will confront the Legislature with one of the greatest challenges it has ever faced.