Health care executives say looming state budget cuts threaten to push thousands more people into the ranks of the uninsured and further strain the region’s clinics and hospitals.
The worries about gutting the state’s Basic Health plan echo a common refrain: Deep cuts are unacceptable and should be partly offset by state tax and fee increases. But wringing more money from taxpayers at a time of high unemployment, pay cuts and shrinking retirement savings would be a difficult sell.
Dave Bare, medical director of the Community Health Association of Spokane (CHAS) clinics, said removing another 70,000 people from the state-subsidized Basic Health plan will backfire. People will put off doctor appointments until they are very ill and then turn to expensive emergency room visits, he said.
Bare said the waiting list to enroll in Basic Health exceeds 91,000 people – most of whom work or own small businesses and pay minimal premiums. Geoff White, owner of the Perry Street Café, described during a news conference Tuesday how he was able to afford knee replacement surgery using Basic Health. The surgery has enabled him to operate a successful business.
Elaine Couture, president and chief operating officer for Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, said hospitals in Washington state already hold down costs and accept fewer tax dollars than most states. Only five states have lower hospital admission rates, she said, giving credit to programs such as Basic Health for encouraging preventive care.
It’s those numbers that have made Washington a model for efficiency during a time when federal health reform remains a possibility.
The budget problems threaten to unravel some of those accomplishments, Couture said. Hospitals in Washington absorbed a $310 million reduction in state funding last year and were asked to find savings and provide the same level of service.
This year, she said, hospitals have been asked to accept another $160 million in cuts.
It will mean “people will wait longer for care, get sicker and require more emergency services and hospitalization,” she said.
Couture and Bare said clinics and hospitals have clamped down on hiring new employees and saved money without having to resort to major layoffs and pay cuts that would jeopardize patient care at a time when more people need specialized care.
“There are no easy choices,” Bare said. “But these kinds of cuts to programs like Basic Health are too much.”