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Crowd decries social, health services cuts

Debbie Wright holds a sign supporting Sally’s House on Wednesday on Indiana Avenue, as Salvation Army officials hold a rally in the background. State funding cuts are threatening to close the emergency shelter, which can house 18 children at a time. (Christopher Anderson)
Debbie Wright holds a sign supporting Sally’s House on Wednesday on Indiana Avenue, as Salvation Army officials hold a rally in the background. State funding cuts are threatening to close the emergency shelter, which can house 18 children at a time. (Christopher Anderson)

Department secretary says budget continues to shrink

Saying the state government now faces “one of its hardest moments since the Great Depression,” the head of the Washington Department of Social and Health Services brought bad news Wednesday night to the region’s most vulnerable citizens and those who serve them.

Despite making more than $2.2 billion in cuts to social services in the past two years, Susan Dreyfus told an emotional crowd of about 400 people overflowing the DSHS office in Spokane Valley, “Additional reductions are inevitable.”

Even if the Legislature voted to approve revenue enhancements, which appears unlikely, they could not come fast enough to balance the 2012-’13 budget without cuts, Dreyfus said.

The September state revenue forecast projected an additional $1.4 billion shortfall in the next two years, after nearly $10 billion in reductions since 2008. Next month’s forecast is expected to be worse.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has asked department heads to submit proposals to reduce the budget an additional 10 percent. For DSHS, that means a reduction of $573 million in state money and the resulting loss of more than $300 million in federal funds from the department’s two-year, $11 billion budget.

“This has fundamentally changed us as a government,” said Dreyfus, who will resign as DSHS secretary to take a job in the private sector in Wisconsin after this fall’s legislative session on the latest financial crisis.

As she will in town hall meetings throughout the state, Dreyfus spelled out three tiers of cuts targeting programs for reduction or elimination that once seemed unthinkable. The cuts would include:

• The strategic, such as reducing the number of regional support networks providing mental health services.

• The difficult but doable, such as suspending individual and family services for clients with developmental disabilities.

• The necessary to reach a 10 percent target, such as major eligibility and program changes for mental health, long-term care and aid for the developmentally disabled.

Among the Spokane cuts is funding for Sally’s House, the only emergency foster program in the state for abused and neglected children.

The Salvation Army program would lose its entire state funding of $750,000 by July 1.

“Where are the children to go?” asked Salvation Army business administrator Sheila Geraghty.

Other crowd reaction ranged from concerned to distraught.

“I think it is a shame our state balances the budget on the backs of its most vulnerable,” Spokane County District Court Judge Debra Hayes said.

Lisa Worley drove three hours to defend the vocational program she runs in Wenatchee. But after hearing others in the audience testify, she said, “As an employed person, I am willing to pay more taxes to prevent cutting these programs.”

In addition to DSHS cuts, Dreyfus told the crowd that the now separate Health Care Authority projected as much as $446 million in cuts from its $10.5 billion budget.

Because most of Medicaid coverage is mandated by federal law, the agency must target state-only-funded programs or “optional” benefits. Among the proposals for a 10-percent cut are elimination of the state’s landmark Basic Health Plan, which covers 36,000 of Washington’s working poor, and an 18-month suspension of all adult pharmaceutical benefits to 500,000 clients.

“People will die,” said Sandi Ando of the National Alliance on Mental Illness for Washington and Spokane.



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