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Gregoire urges Congress to take action on health care

Governor worried about impact on state’s budget problems

OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire and a phalanx of state officials who deal with health care tried to send a message to a Congress that may be wavering on the issue in the wake of last week’s U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts:

“Regardless of one election, national health care reform is essential,” Gregoire said at a mid-morning press conference. “Get it done.”

If Congress can’t pass a comprehensive reform package quickly, it should pass the funding changes that would send more federal money to Washington to cover Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates, and give the state a waiver that would help cover the costs of state health care programs for poor children.

State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said that under the current systems, Washington expects to have 1 million people without health insurance by the end of 2011, and currently has a fourth of its population that is “under insured.”

Asked how worried she is that Congress will not pass a health care funding package by the time the Legislature has to make decisions on the state’s budget problems, she replied: “Quite.”

She suggested they vote on fiscal health care issues first which take a simple majority to pass, then take up policy issues that might be more difficult with the Democrats’ loss of a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate.

Some policy issues, such as banning insurance companies from refusing coverage for pre-existing conditions, have broad support, she said. They should determine the issues on which they have strong agreement, and work out the disagreements on the rest.

Because of uncertainty over health care reimbursement and a possible economic stimulus package, Gregoire said the state could receive anywhere from $1 billion to nothing from the federal government before the Legislature adjourns on March 11. She said she has a tax package that would help replace some $780 million if federal money isn’t available, but said she won’t announce it until after the next state revenue forecast in mid February.

“I’m going to honor the request of the speaker and the majority leader that I not come out with a tax package right now,” she said. Asked whether the public might be concerned about what taxes she’d propose and want to see her plan sooner than mid February, she said the public is most concerned that she would have to make the cuts in health care and social programs she announced in December. “It would be irresponsible for me to come out with a tax package now.”

She said she wanted to give the Legislature time to work through its plans, also. Thus far, each house of the Legislature has passed at least one bill involving budget savings, although neither has taken up a bill passed by the other. Still, the governor described the Legislature as busy with different ideas on jobs, education and the budget:

“They’re working at a fevered pitch.”

On other topics:

• Gregoire said she could support extending the sales tax to candy, although she isn’t yet ready to set any money from that tax into a separate account to pay for health care. “We have to look at the budget as a whole.”

She described the purchase of candy as “a choice” and said a tax there would be preferable to a general tax increase.

• She also wants more information on a proposal by Republicans to “smooth out” projected increases in Unemployment Insurance taxes, on the rise because of high levels of unemployment. “I’ve asked that it have a hearing. I don’t know if it works or it doesn’t work.”

• Does not support proposals to add private insurance to the state’s workers’ compensation system, contending it would cause those rates to rise. “Look at the health care industry. Are your rates going down? Are you happy with your rates?”