Our View: Now is time to reform health care

The men and women who take care of frail senior citizens in this state - whether in a boarding home, a nursing home or in-home care - earn such a low wage that many of the caregivers qualify for food stamps and state-subsidized health care.

That's a travesty in a state with a $2 billion revenue surplus.

Advocates for long-term care of the elderly have asked for an additional $97 million above what Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed in her budget, but they have an uphill battle ahead.

The problem is a lot of advocacy groups have their eyes on that revenue surplus, so it comes down to a matter of public policy priorities. Surely those certified nursing assistants and other caregivers who comfort the sick and tend to their emotional and physical wellbeing deserve to be a priority in Washington state.

Contributing to the problem is this state's low reimbursement rates in Medicare - the state subsidized health care program for the poor. An increasing number of doctors are turning away Medicaid patients because of low reimbursement rates. Patients who can't find a doctor end up in hospital emergency rooms where it costs an exorbitant amount to treat them. The costs to treat the poor are passed on to the rest of society via higher health insurance rates and co-payments.

The same holds true for adult boarding homes that lose $23 a day for every Medicaid patient they treat. When denied care, those patients end up in nursing homes where, again, the cost of providing care is much higher.

Instead of increasing reimbursement rates, state policymakers are forcing people into hospital emergency rooms or nursing homes where the costs multiply. It's so shortsighted.

But lawmakers are reluctant to tackle health care reform in general and Medicaid reimbursement rates in particular. Instead they study the problem time and time again. Studies are lawmakers' way of putting off the tough decisions.

Gary Weeks, executive director of the Washington Health Care Association, whose members operate half of the state's nursing and boarding home beds, said, "I think we need to draw the line and say, 'We've studied this to death, folks.' "

Roger Newman, a certified nursing assistant at Providence Mother Joseph Care Center, sees the problem every day. Staff turnover is very high because of the low wages. Several of his colleagues have gone to work at a warehouse distribution center for higher pay, better hours and less turmoil, he said.

While it's true that Gov. Chris Gregoire has included additional funds in her budget for the long-term care program in this state, her proposal falls short in some key areas such as the Medicaid gap, salaries and senior nutrition.

As the baby-boom generation begins to retire, this problem will only magnify. Now is the time for health care and Medicare reform - not more studies.