State Workers

State Medicaid jobs spared from cuts

About 160 jobs were spared Tuesday in the state Medicaid program - at least for now.

Doug Porter, assistant secretary in the Department of Social and Health Services, announced in a morning memo to workers that he was rescinding his April 8 order to eliminate the jobs. Of the total, 140 people faced layoffs by June and the other 20 slots were to be eliminated by retirements or leaving positions vacant.

“They just sent out a memo and I heard screams across the floor,” Medical Assistance call center worker Marci McGhee said shortly after the memo went out to workers. Some of them learned the good news during a layoff seminar. “It is fantastic. All our hard work and effort paid off. It was a team effort.”

McGhee works as a customer service representative in the agency’s call center, explaining Medicaid rules to clients and health providers, and she was shocked to learn earlier in the month that she might lose her job. She and more than a dozen other members of the Washington Federation of State Employees helped lobby lawmakers for extra money as the special session came to a close early April 13.

“I think it’s good news for staff. There is no doubt about it,” said Jim Stevenson, a spokesman for DSHS’ Health and Recovery Services Administration, which oversees Medicaid. “A lot of people have been living with uncertainty for two weeks. It’s a happy ending to that uncertainty.”

The agency initially faced a $21.5 million shortfall and expected to receive some extra funds from lawmakers, but the total was $5 million less in supplemental legislative appropriations than it needed, Stevenson said. After the Democrat-controlled Legislature authorized an extra $2.6 million last week, Porter relented and said he would try to manage the remainder of the budget shortfall without layoffs.

Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, offered the budget amendment that provided the extra cash, and Olympia-area lawmakers – Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser and Reps. Sam Hunt and Brendan Williams – were instrumental in winning the budget proviso as time ran out, according to Tim Welch, spokesman for the state employee union.

Rep. Williams said in an e-mail that the union and Children’s Alliance were helpful in securing the money. It prevents what “could have been a real catastrophe for vital services, the workers themselves, and downtown Olympia’s vitality. Between this success, and success in preserving health care benefits, I feel like we closed out a losing season with a couple strong wins to build on,” he wrote.

The Medical Assistance division employs 719 people, and 140 people faced the loss of a full-time job. No decision has been made about the nearly 20 jobs that would be left unfilled. There is a freeze preventing new hires, and the vacancies save the agency money, helping it manage the remaining shortfall, Stevenson said.

Porter’s memo carried a caution, saying “layoffs could still be in our future as we implement the current budget, especially in light of the additional savings required through furloughs and statewide efficiencies. I will communicate those budget balancing decisions through a separate process, as necessary.”

Stevenson said the problem must be worked through in consultation with Gov. Chris Gregoire’s staffers and lawmakers.

Some of the threatened jobs were in the call center, which had layoffs in 2007 that led to longer waiting times for clients and providers who called for help. The waiting times would have grown worse under the new round of cuts, but a bigger problem might be that most calls go unanswered.

Stevenson said 63 percent of the 71,359 calls received in October went unanswered and that 57 percent were unanswered in March. Waiting times averaged about 15.5 minutes for health care providers and 12.7 minutes for clients in September. In March, they were 16.7 minutes for providers and 11.9 minutes for clients – compared with less than a minute for all callers before the 2007 layoffs.

DSHS contends the budget shortfall was the result of too little funding from the Legislature in the 2009 budget. Stevenson said Gregoire proposed additional funds to cover the shortfall, but the House and Senate’s initial spending proposals provided too little.

The union blames DSHS managers entirely for the budget problem.

“I’m glad they finally admitted their mistake,” Welch said. “Our workers there really did fix the screw-up their management caused. To wait until four days before the end of session (to announce the problem) was inexcusable.”

Tara Miller, a call center worker who helped lobby the Legislature and served as the workers’ unofficial spokeswoman at the Capitol, said the no-layoffs announcement was cause for celebration, “but it’s not a permanent fix. A permanent fix would be reforming the process on how they lay off staff.”

“That’s my next step,” Miller said. “Every year we run into this and it’s a knee-jerk reaction: ‘Let’s lay off people.’ ”

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688