OLYMPIA – When Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed a budget that cut many programs that help Washington state’s poor, she said that it was “up to us as a community” to help fill the gap that would be left by state government.
“State government can’t do it anymore,” she said at the time. “It’s up to the nonprofits, it’s up to the faith community, it’s up to us. It’s up to our families and our friends and our neighbors to help out those we know, and those we don’t know or never met.”
Officials with some of the state’s charities say that while they’ll continue to offer as much support as they can, their ability to increase that help is heavily reliant on more support from a community already facing hard times.
Nonprofit groups are “already overwhelmed by the need created by the economic downturn,” said Tony Lee, advocacy director for Seattle-based Solid Ground/Statewide Poverty Action Network.
“To expect them to increase their efforts to absorb these massive budget cuts is simply not going to happen,” he said.
People who may normally donate to charity may not have the resources this year to continue their level of giving, and some may even end up becoming the ones in need.
“We’re seeing people who used to be donors come into the food bank as clients,” said Claire Acey, a spokeswoman for Seattle-based Northwest Harvest, a hunger relief group that works with about 300 food banks, meal programs and elementary schools. “It’s a domino effect.”
Gregoire spokesman Cory Curtis said the governor’s office talked with several advocacy and nonprofit groups before her budget rollout in mid-December “to ask them to think about what’s possible and what they can do.”
Curtis said Gregoire understands the strain that many charities are already facing, but “there aren’t a lot of good options.”
Gregoire has suggested deep cuts in state programs to help patch a $1.1 billion deficit through June 2011 and another projected deficit of $4.6 billion through mid-2013.
The proposed cuts include the elimination of the Basic Health Program, which provides subsidized medical insurance to 66,000 poorer Washingtonians. Also eliminated are cash grants and medical care for the Disability Lifeline program, which aids mostly childless adults who are unemployable but not receiving federal aid.
The proposal also would eliminate the Children’s Health Program, which provides medical coverage for 27,000 children who could be in the country illegally. A state food stamp program for those who don’t qualify for federal food stamps would also be cut.
Lawmakers start their 105-day legislative session Jan. 10, and Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate will present their own proposals.
But those proposals are likely to be just as cut-heavy, and likely not to include tax increases, because voters in November rejected several new taxes and placed renewed restrictions on the Legislature’s ability to raise taxes without a statewide vote.
“The public said to government, ‘We no longer want you to do all of this,’ ” Curtis said, but “the need is there, and the hope is that somebody is there to step up.”
Lee said that the scale of the cuts goes beyond what many charities can offer. “When people are denied health care services, neighbors can’t pick that up, churches can’t pick that up, nonprofits can’t pick that up,” he said.
Community clinics across the state are seeing their state grants cut as part of the budget cuts. The clinics provide primary care for people regardless of their ability to pay, and many of those patients are insured under programs the state is looking to cut.
“What’s going to happen is these people aren’t going to be able to get into a clinic and will end up in hospital emergency rooms,” said Rebecca Kavoussi, with Community Health Network of Washington. “The hospital doesn’t stop paying the nurse or stop paying the electricity when a patient comes in without insurance. They shift the cost to those who can pay.”
Kristen West, executive director of CHOICE Regional Health Network, a coalition of hospitals, clinics, physicians and others in Mason, Grays Harbor, Pacific, Lewis and Thurston counties, said that her group helps connect people to resources, and helps coordinate donated care from physicians and hospitals.
She said they’ve already seen the volume of patients seeking help triple in the last few months, and CHOICE is trying to recruit more physicians.
“In Thurston County, when the Basic Health Plan is cut, there will be 5,000 people who will immediately be uninsured,” she said. “It’s a huge impact on a small community.”
Josephine Tamayo Murray, of Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, said her organization and others are bracing for a difficult legislative session.
“We’re trying to provide information to our legislators so they know the negative impacts of the most devastating cuts,” she said. “We as a community are coming together to try and meet the need, but will it be enough?”