January 20, 2011 in City

Clinics face crisis, CHAS chief says

State cuts would place services, poorest at risk
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Looming state budget cuts threaten to unravel a network of Spokane health clinics that treat the region’s poorest people.

Peg Hopkins, executive director of the Community Health Association of Spokane, said the budget proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire would carve $9 million from her organization’s $30 million budget. Such a move would likely result in deep layoffs among CHAS’s 300-plus employees, erode services, and lengthen wait times for the 30,000 patients who go to CHAS clinics each year to see a doctor.

“We’re in crisis,” Hopkins said during an interview with The Spokesman-Review’s editorial board this week. She noted that by March 1, CHAS will have to begin dismantling its services unless a source of money can be secured. It’s the latest call for help by CHAS at a time when demand for medical treatment it provides is at an all-time high.

The governor has decried her own budget proposal, made in December, and challenged the Legislature to do better when trying to find $512 million in budget savings.

Leaders from both parties have said subsidized health programs for children and the poor may be trimmed, but must not be erased.

The governor has proposed eliminating all subsidized insurance from the Basic Health Plan, a program that covers 66,000 people.

Other program cuts that would hamper CHAS include zeroing out the Disability Lifeline Grants. This program helps the neediest state residents including about 1,400 in Spokane.

CHAS, founded 16 years ago, has grown into one of the region’s largest clinics. It offers a sliding fee scale for patients and does not reject patients if they are unable to pay. Many patients earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, yet have jobs that don’t offer health insurance plans or can’t afford it.

Hopkins said 40 percent of CHAS patients have no medical insurance.

CHAS has recently committed money and effort toward emergency dental care – a service that is not provided at local hospitals. Emergency rooms do not employ dentists, said Dr. Jeff Collins, chief medical officer at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center. Instead, such patients might be given antibiotics and a painkiller to treat an abscess, for example.

“We turn them back out without fixing their problem,” he said.

Hopkins said CHAS will have to shrink its new emergency dental program in hopes of being able to at least treat the direst cases that could lead to other health complications.

The state has already stopped providing Medicaid coverage for adult dental care that is not considered an emergency.

Hopkins has been attempting to save the clinics from tough cutbacks, asking cash-strapped local government agencies for grants and attempting to work with hospitals and other nonprofit agencies and foundations.

“We’re going to do everything we can,” she said, adding that she worries publicity may discourage patients in need of care from visiting the clinics.

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