Some were in wheelchairs. Others held banners. In all about 100 activists showed up tonight for a candlelight vigil under the Capitol's stone-roofed north entrance, expressing worry that looming budget cuts are going to shred the state's safety net.
The state's anticipated budget shortfall for next year is $4.8 billion, and a Thursday morning revenue forecast could make the situation worse or better.
But already, Gov. Chris Gregoire has ordered across-the-board spending cuts to cover a $520 million deficit through June, and that alone will knock some 27,000 children off health-insurance subsidies and could end prescription drug coverage for up to 500,000 recipients of Medicaid after March.
Additional cuts of 10 percent or more are under review by state agencies as Gregoire prepares for a budget to be released before Christmas.
"Even though we are in a recession, and I know we have to do these cuts, it's going to hurt in the long run," said Kyle Matheson, who held a battery-powered candle. "We need to stop this hurt."
Matheson said he recently became unemployed and also serves on the board of People First of Washington, which advocates for people with disabilities. "I'm concerned about the Medicaid cuts, the pharmacy cuts, any type of cuts that are going to hurt anybody with developmental disabilities or mental health issues," he said.
Diana Stadden, policy and advocacy coordinator for the ARC of Washington advocacy group, said she has a 17-year-old son with autism and she worries about pharmacy cuts. As a parent of three children employed by a nonprofit, she said it will be difficult to pay for some of his medications.
Stadden's group was one of several that arranged the vigil, including AARP, PAS-Port for Change, Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans, SEIU Healthcare 775NW and the Washington State Senior Citizens Lobby.
Ingrid McDonald of AARP, Walt Bowen of the Senior Lobby and Sue Elliott of ARC met with Gov. Gregoire and other healthcare-issue stakeholders late in the afternoon to talk about the pending cuts. McDonald said there was a shared sense of despair about the budget in the short term but optimism longer term that is linked to federal health-care reform.
She said Gregoire pointed to the reform as a way to get out of the current financing mess and that Gregoire reported talking to federal Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about letting the state serve as a pilot for the new Centers for Innovation created by reform.
Dennis Mahar, leader of the Lewis-Mason-Thurston Area Agency on Aging said the state might be able to save money with a more coordinated use of Medicare and Medicaid spending.
He also expressed hope that lawmakers could find the guts to approve new revenues, summoning a two-thirds supermajority required by passage of Initiative 1053 on Nov. 2.
"I worry that our jails and emergency rooms will become our treatment centers," Mahar said.
Bowen said what is happening with budget cuts is the start of "dismantling" a long-term care system that took 30 years to build up and become cost-effective through supporting seniors in their homes instead of nursing facilities.
"I think the governor is pained about the whole thing," Bowen said after the meeting with about 14 people and Gregoire about health care. "This is beyond anything she ever thought about in political life before She was troubled by what is going to happen and tried to explain it. She's trying to figure out what to do about it."
The Governor’s Office confirmed Gregoire met with the parties but had no immediate comment.Mahar and McDonald cited elimination of hospice care aid for 2,600 low-income people and an end to prescription drugs for outpatient clients of the Medicaid system as major harmful outcomes of the budget crisis.
"I don't know how you do that,” Mahar said of the hospice cuts that are included in the Department of Social and Health Services share of 6.3 percent spending cuts. The cuts also will eliminate dental, vision and other care for low-income elderly and reduce hours available for homecare workers to assist the frail still living in their homes.
DSHS Secretary Susan Dreyfus said last week her agency also is cutting about $19 million more from its welfare spending, particularly in child-care subsidies for poor families transitioning to work, because caseloads have swollen and funding has not. That is in addition to more than $50 million in welfare cuts announced a few months ago.
Adam Glickman of the Service Employees International Union provided an analysis of the overall DSHS cuts that make up a large share of the $520 million in across-the-board cuts. The analysis showed administration and support services are being reduced by about 5.2 percent, while alcohol and substance abuse programs and developmental disabilities are cut by 10 percent. Economic services such as help for those on welfare are being cut 16.8 percent and long-term care is cut 15.7 percent, the analysis shows.
Inside of the long-term care area, SEIU's analysis shows home-care services are reduced by 15.5 percent and community residential services by 7.8 percent.
"It means some seniors and people with disability will lose homecare services entirely. Others will see their services drastically reduced, and thousands of vulnerable seniors will lose access to critical services like dental and vision coverage and prescription medications," Glickman said.
Glickman said SEIU and the coalition wants to put a human face on the cuts before the ugly budget fight gets under way in January in the Legislature. And McDonald said they want the public to know what really is at stake.
"There's not a clear path to it not being ugly," Glickman said.