New federal dollars must be used to assist the poor

The governor's office announced that the federal government will provide $86 million in unanticipated budget help to Washington state. This is part of a national program that reduces the amount that states must pay to help provide pharmacy benefits for Medicare patients who also are eligible for Medicaid.

When announcing the new federal aid, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said, “We believe that today’s action will help states as they struggle to maintain Medicaid services and other budget priorities in these difficult times.” She also said, “This relief will help states continue to provide critical health care services.”

In a related matter, Gov. Chris Gregoire announced a set of revenue proposals needed to support her “book two” budget and the restorations of proposed cuts that it contains. She also presented a new balance sheet that projects an ending fund balance for the current biennium of $512 million.

While the governor’s revenue proposals are helpful, her “book two” budget still leaves in place severe cuts to Medicaid programs that will harm elders and people with disabilities. This new federal funding should be used to buy back these cuts. This is why the federal government has provided the funds. This is where the money should be spent.

It would take about $30 million to restore planned program reductions in the Aging and Disability Services Administration. Moreover, this $30 million would generate an additional $45 million in Medicaid matching funds. This would have the double benefit of maintaining vital services and putting $75 million to work in our Washington economy to help propel the economic recovery that is under way.

These funds would unlock the doors to adult day health for 600 people, maintain Medicaid personal care services for 1,400 people, maintain home care hours of service for 9,500 people, and maintain care management services for thousands more who are served by home care agencies.

In addition to these restorations, the budget should allocate $10.5 million to maintain the current policy of the state to absorb the cost of the prescription co-pay required from patients who are eligible for both Medicaid and the Medicare part D pharmacy program. This policy was one of the most important accomplishments of the governor during her first term.

It also would make enormous fiscal sense. Many elders and people with disabilities need multiple prescriptions. Most cannot afford the co-pays. They will go without needed medicine and will be more costly to care for down the road.

These two steps would require less than one half of the new $86 million in federal aid.

There will be some who argue that this money should be used to increase the proposed half billion dollar ending fund balance. They will argue that we need to bolster the savings account to deal with unforeseen circumstances.

The ElderCare Alliance believes that the money should be used NOW for the purposes intended as outlined by Secretary Sebelius. We have a moral imperative to prevent the human suffering that will occur now and not in the uncertain future.

We had an all-cuts budget adopted last year. This year we need a balanced approach that includes new revenues.

Thankfully, we just got some unexpected help from the federal government. Budget writers need to use this new money for the purposes intended. They need to use it now to relieve human suffering. They also need to raise revenues to support other vital public services that will not get this special help.

Jerry Reilly is chairman of the ElderCare Alliance. A former assistant secretary at DSHS, he can be reached at jerryreily@msn.com.