OLYMPIA – Gov. Chris Gregoire and Democratic legislative leaders committed state government on Tuesday to the expensive and complicated goal of universal health care coverage for Washington residents within five years.
Strategies include covering all children by 2010 and adding young adults through age 24, covering foster-care youth past their 18th birthdays and cracking down on emergency room overuse. The package also proposes better use of technology, aiding businesses, finding ways to drive down costs and expanding the state-subsidized health plan for the working poor.
The state’s goal is within reach, even though the federal government has fumbled around so far, Gregoire and other leaders told a news conference.
The plan, dubbed the Healthy Washington Initiative, would cost an estimated $142 million in the next two years. Over time, the governor said, the twin goals are to rein in costs and to make sure all Washington residents have coverage.
Currently, almost 600,000 of Washington’s 6.5 million residents, including 73,000 children, have no health insurance and others are underinsured, Gregoire said. They either go without adequate care or rely on expensive hospital emergency room care, she said.
The actual coverage would come from individuals, their employers or the government, Gregoire said. All three sectors have a responsibility, but the ultimate goal is to have individuals purchasing plans, rather than mandating employers to provide coverage, she said.
The state covers about 1.3 million people, including public employees, the working poor and people who qualify for Medicaid. Included in that figure are 544,000 children and youth, and Gregoire’s current budget proposal includes money to cover an additional 32,000 over the next two years. Lawmakers and the governor have a goal of covering all children with private or public-financed plans by 2010.
“Quality, affordable health care is a right, not a privilege, and the Healthy Washington Initiative will make changes that bring us another step closer to serving all Washingtonians,” the governor said.
She said health care is a national crisis that cries out for a federal solution, but that states are forced to step up while national politicians continue to debate and delay.
The state’s plan “is not the end, but is a point along the way,” the governor said.
“This is a stepped process. It’s not chewing off the whole problem in one bite,” she said.
Gregoire said she hopes Congress and the Bush administration will still ramp up their work on health care. One specific help would be financial assistance for the state’s Basic Health Plan, which covers more than 100,000 working poor on a sliding fee schedule, she said. That could potentially cover 450,000 of the 600,000 uninsured, she said.
The Legislature’s health committee chairwomen – Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, and Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle – said the governor’s omnibus bill will be considered by lawmakers Monday and that related legislation is already moving.
The proposal also includes coverage for unmarried young adults under age 25, portable insurance plans that workers can carry from job to job, pooling of public and private markets to drive down premiums by negotiating en masse with insurers, reducing emergency room visits, and better management of chronic patients.
Minority Republicans held their own press conference to complain about being frozen out and to criticize the plan.
Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley, called it “a Cadillac insurance plan” that fails to provide a range of options that would entice businesses and individuals to enroll.
Rep. Bill Hinkle, R-Cle Elum, said the package should include rollbacks of some mandates placed on insurance plans and business tax deductions for employers who provide coverage.
“There is nothing in there that will reduce health care costs,” he said. “This only increases costs. … You can drive a truck through it and have government take over.”
Gregoire said she hadn’t frozen out the Republicans and that the blue-ribbon commission that developed the program included diverse thought.
“Health care is not about politics,” she said. “Health care is about meeting the needs of Washington.”