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Kids’ health care in danger

Proposed DSHS budget would lower income threshold for state insurance

Proposed cuts at the Washington Department of Social and Health Services would reverse Gov. Chris Gregoire’s stated goal of extending health insurance to all children in Washington by 2010, according to children’s advocates.

In recommendations submitted to the governor’s budget office, DSHS has proposed rolling back eligibility for children in the state’s insurance program called Apple Health for Kids.

Other recommendations include eliminating community support for mental patients leaving the state’s psychiatric hospitals; ending adult hearing, vision and dental benefits; and no longer providing medical interpreters.

“They are just going after anything that uses state funds that’s not mandatory by law,” said Ralph DeCristoforo, of Health for All, which connects low-income people with medical care.

The DSHS recommendations were in response to the governor’s request for state agencies to come up with possible solutions to a continuing budget crisis.

“With the $1.7 billion budget shortfall, state agencies were asked to look for every possible budget savings, even those that would be tough to take,” said Kate Lykins Brown, spokeswoman for the state Office of Financial Management. “We have asked that all possible options be put on the table for consideration.”

The cuts in children’s health insurance would limit eligibility to families earning 205 percent or less of the federal poverty level. Those who earn 300 percent are eligible now. Such a measure would eliminate health insurance for thousands of children, particularly those in families of the newly poor whose parents have been laid off in the economic downturn, said Jon Gould, deputy director of the Children’s Alliance in Seattle.

“This budget cut would undo 10 years of progress on children’s health and prevent us from reaching the goal the Legislature and the governor have adopted of covering all kids by 2010,” Gould said.

The recommended cut would be a major concession by Gregoire, who in 2007 threatened to sue the Bush administration if it didn’t allow the state to expand health coverage to 38,000 more children.

The state currently provides health insurance to about 600,000 children, Gould said.

DeCristoforo said the costs associated with social services do not disappear when a state agency cuts benefits or eliminates entire programs: They are absorbed by emergency rooms and jails.

“The cost is just shifted to an unstructured system with no unified method of providing cost-effective care and efficient tracking,” he said.

Gregoire will review the recommendations from DSHS and other agencies before submitting her proposed 2010 supplemental budget to the Legislature. A new round of cuts will follow enactment early this year of a biennial budget that reflected a $9 billion revenue shortfall.

The Health and Recovery Services Administration budget of $11.3 billion is the largest part of the total DSHS budget of $20.5 billion.

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