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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Guest opinion: State Senate plan cuts health exchange

By Marcus Riccelli

Health care costs are going down. The number of insured Washingtonians is going up; dramatically. It’s good news for health care in our state.

The bad news for Washington consumers is that Senate Republicans in Olympia are choosing to divert tax revenue meant to fund the Health Benefit Exchange.

What does that mean? The very first tax Washington ever created statewide, way back in 1891, was the insurance premiums tax. All types of insurance, from car to health to fire, are subject to this tax. The revenue raised helps pay for important state budget items.

When we created the Health Benefit Exchange, we used a portion of the insurance premiums tax to fund it, which made sense: Use health insurance tax revenue to help make health insurance affordable to all.

And it’s working. A May 13 Spokesman-Review editorial reported that since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Spokane County has gone from 13 percent uninsured to just 3 percent. And more plans and options are on the way.

Keeping health care affordable should be a top priority, but that doesn’t appear to be the case when you look at the Senate Republican plan. Their budget takes Health Benefit Exchange funding away in order to claim they’re not raising taxes.

Unfortunately, without that funding, the assessment that covers exchange costs goes up 238 percent, from $4 to $14, which means higher insurance premiums for the consumer.

Which makes it unaffordable.

You could save even more money by simply voting to end the exchanges altogether, except Senate Republicans know they couldn’t get away with taking health care from so many people.

A cynic would say this is a devious way of ending health care reform in Washington; taking away health coverage from families without looking like that’s what you’re doing. But maybe it’s an accident, an error that needs to be corrected. House Democrats are dedicated to making health insurance affordable for everyone.

It’s no secret the exchange has had problems during the startup. As vice chair of the House Health Care Committee, I have been a harsh critic of some of the egregious customer service failures that have occurred. As an elected official, my office and I have worked closely with individuals on a case-by-case basis to resolve serious issues they faced with their coverage.

But we must remain steadfast on our path toward a goal of affordable, high-quality and accessible health care for every Washingtonian. We must not stand by as the Senate Republican budget proposal tries to balance the budget by punishing consumers and trying to raise the costs of health care. That means moving forward, not going back to a time of high health plan costs that forced families to choose between health coverage and food on the table.

Breaking the Health Care Exchange might score points for a few right-wing politicians, yet it comes at a cost to taxpayers and families. Representing one of the most economically challenged districts in the state, I know this would hit some of our working families the hardest right here in Spokane.

The proposed Senate Republican budget would actually cost us more, in total, because people without health coverage wind up going to the emergency room, their only resort and the most expensive possible choice. We all wind up paying for that.

Please call (800-562-6000) or email your state senator and ask them to protect affordable, market-based health care by turning down a short-term budget cut that will hurt Washington families.

We must say a collective no to a Senate budget that would force an unacceptable increase in health plan costs and reduce vital services.

Let’s not go backward in time. Let’s move forward, together. Our community is stronger when all of us have the stability needed to thrive, and that includes high-quality health care for all.

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, a Democrat, represents the 3rd Legislative District in Spokane. He serves as vice chair of the House Health Care Committee and deputy majority whip.