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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Health care measures pass legislative hurdles before deadline

The Washington Senate during floor debate earlier this week at the Capitol in Olympia. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

Washington would study whether to develop a universal health care system and its largest university would study whether to develop a special program for mental health under bills lawmakers approved at a key deadline Wednesday.

The Senate approved a plan to set up a “work group” that includes business, labor, and members of the medical community and the general public to try designing a government-run health care system available to all residents. If approved by the House and signed by the governor, the group would draft a preliminary report by Nov. 15 and full recommendations a year later.

Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, the bill’s sponsor, said it was a serious proposal to come up with “concrete steps to prepare us for a future where we cover all Washingtonians.” People shouldn’t lose their homes or go bankrupt because of an accident or serious illness that results in large medical bills, she said.

Minority Republicans didn’t have the votes to block the bill, so they took shots at it with amendments calling for the work group to study socialized medicine in Cuba and Venezuela as well as add a provision that its recommendation preserve the private insurance market provided by employers. All failed before Democrats passed the bill 28-21.

The House, meanwhile, approved a bill to require the University of Washington School of Medicine to plan for a Behavioral Health Innovation and Integration campus that would include a teaching hospital in Seattle for as many as 150 mental health patients. The goal is to increase the number of psychiatrists, connect with community-based hospitals through telemedicine, expand a suicide-prevention program and incorporate substance-abuse services.

If approved by the Senate, the bill would require UW to bring that plan to the Legislature and the state budget office by Dec. 1.

The new campus is necessary to help those suffering from behavioral health-related issues, said Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, the bill’s primary sponsor. “We need more care for the people of our state, and we need more caregivers,” Chopp said.

It was the first bill with Chopp as primary sponsor that passed off the floor in his 20 years as speaker, and he received multiple standing ovations from the floor during the brief debate. Unlike the Senate’s contentious universal health plan bill, however, it passed unanimously.

The bills were among a flurry of health care-related legislation on the last day to send certain proposals to the opposite chamber or risk having them declared dead for the rest of the session.

The Senate also passed bills to create affordable insurance plans for individuals who don’t have health care through their employer; to develop a special account to use money the state saves from a new federal policy to pay for programs to improve the health of American Indians and Alaska Natives; to increase Medicaid payments for home health services to help people stay in their homes longer; and to protect consumers from being signed up for mail-order prescriptions without their consent.

Bills to expand telemedicine in areas where medical personnel are limited and for state agencies to track the care their developmentally disabled clients receive also passed.

In other health care-related action, the sponsor of a pending bill to remove the personal exemption for all childhood vaccinations announced the Senate will not take up that proposal. Instead, the Senate will wait to debate the narrower House bill, which currently would remove only the personal exemption for the measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR, vaccine.

Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said the ultimate goal is to strike a balance between broad personal exemptions currently in the law and medical and religious exemptions, which both proposals would retain.

The House bill could be expanded to cover other vaccines at some point as it moves through the Senate, but any changes would have to be sent back to the House for approval.

Also on Wednesday, Randall introduced a resolution calling for Congress and President Donald Trump to change federal laws that protect vaccine manufacturers from being sued by people who have had adverse health effects from vaccines.

Randall said she supports the bill removing the personal exemption but the resolution is an attempt to answer concerns some parents have about the safety of the vaccines.

“Holding big business and Big Pharma accountable is something I came here to do,” said Randall, a freshman senator. The bill is unlikely to pass this year because of deadlines for advancing legislation, but she said she’ll try to get it passed next year.