"Health Reform in Action!" That is the headline on the White House website for health care reform. It pronounces that health reform makes health care more affordable, holds insurers accountable, expands coverage to all Americans, and makes our health care system sustainable.
If only our state Legislature was on the same page as we mark the first anniversary of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act being signed into law.
In just one year, we have seen some remarkable progress with national health care reform, including banishing the insurance practice that allowed sick children to be denied coverage, allowing kids up to age 26 to stay on their parents’ plans, and filling in the Medicare prescription donut hole for seniors. And in just three more years, we will realize major coverage expansions that mean no one will have to worry that losing one’s job means losing access to affordable health coverage.
But instead of gearing up to expand coverage, Washington state is on the verge of eliminating the very programs and systems that will help us turn health care reform’s promises into reality. Persistent recession-related fiscal bad news threatens our state health care system.
Two programs on the chopping block, the Basic Health Plan and the Disability Lifeline, have just begun to receive federal dollars to finance 50 percent of their cost because of the Affordable Care Act. But if the programs are cut, the $117 million in annual federal dollars go away as well, including $660,000 for more than 2,300 Thurston County residents in the last two months alone. In Thurston County more than 1,800 of your neighbors are covered under the Basic Health program and an additional 500-plus people receive care through Disability Lifeline.
Basic Health helps families continue to work, go to school and get the preventive care they need. Disability Lifeline provides stability for people with severe, chronic illnesses, injuries and mental illnesses. Without these two programs we will all pay higher health care costs as the uninsured crowd hospital emergency rooms and preventable problems become more expensive conditions.
Community Health Centers form Washington’s largest primary care network, serving more than 730,000 people, including thousands of patients who turn to SeaMar in Thurston County. Health centers are envisioned as a cornerstone of the Affordable Care Act, with a goal of doubling their patients by 2015.
Yet the cumulative effect of the cuts proposed for the next biennium would devastate the health center system — nearly 40 percent would have to close at least one clinic in their community.
As we reach the first anniversary of health care reform, our state may turn away federal money and squander the promise of reform.
What will that mean at the county level? The cuts will be deep. It will threaten the ability of health centers to keep their doors open and provide the care that is necessary to the people that fill their waiting rooms each day.
What does that mean at the human level? People will get sicker and miss work, families will be bankrupted by health care costs, and people will die as a result of not getting care or getting it too late.
I argue that in this economic crisis we must preserve programs that not only provide a safety net for today, but also a bridge to true reform in 2014. It would be tragic to see the Legislature eliminate the successful health programs in our state that would help us get there.
Linda McVeigh is chair of the board of the Community Health Network of Washington, a statewide system of community health centers that works to ensure all Washingtonians have access to medical care and health insurance coverage. She can be reached at ContactUs@chnwa.org.