June 8, 2009

WA avoids cutting thousands off health care

State will raise rates for program that covers the working poor
By The Spokesman-Review
 

One of the budget items that gave lawmakers heartburn this year was the decision to trim the state’s Basic Health Plan — state-subsidized health insurance for the working poor — by 43 percent.

With the program covering nearly 100,000 Washingtonians, that would likely mean cutting about 43 percent off them off their health coverage. In the middle of a recession. But how to decide who got whacked? Would the state cut pregnant women off health care? People with cancer? Would it hold a lottery (this idea was actually floated) to decide who loses health care? Do you cut off everybody but the poorest people? Or cut off those who’ve been on the insurance the longest?

Now, Washington’s Health Care Authority says it’s come up with a way to avoid cutting people off coverage.

The state will increase the rates that covered people pay, rather than forcing anyone off the program. Today, an average person pays $36 a month. Taxpayers pay the remaining $209 that the coverage costs.

Health Care Authority administrator Steve Hill says that the new plan calls for the average enrollee to pay about $62 a month next year. Also, the $150-a-year deductible will increase to $250 in January.

“We are fully aware that this decision will impact many people in the program,” Hill said in a statement announcing the decision. “Even a $17 a month increase can be tough for a family struggling to get by.” But the rate increase was preferable, he said, to “arbitrarily” removing people from coverage.

The plan provides critical coverage, particularly for people working for small businesses that do not provide health coverage, said Peg Hopkins, executive director of the Community Health Association of Spokane.

She agrees that some people will drop off coverage due to the higher rates. She also predicts that families will drop coverage of some members to save money. Many have been worried about the BHP budget cut, she said, and whether they’d lose their health insurance.

“I’ve heard people in the waiting room talking about it already,” she said. “People are scared. I just dont’ think anyone can overstate the cost to health of anxiety, of not knowing whether you’ll have access to care.”

The state plan also calls for shifting as many people as possible — up to 8,000 of those now covered — onto Medicaid. The Health Care Authority will also increase audits to ensure that people are actually eligible.

“With a more stringent assets test and normal attrition, Hill thinks the program will be able to meet its budget challenge without forcing off any people who are qualified to remain with Basic Health,” the agency said.

For more on this developing story, please see our state political blog: www.eyeonolympia.com.


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