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Archive for the ‘DSHS budget’ Category

Things are still beyond grim as the work on Washington State’s  budget continues. However, on February 4, there was a more hopeful sign when the  Senate approved its version of the Supplemental Budget, including a provision to continue the Basic Health Program, although in reduced scope, by drawing on the Life Sciences Discovery Fund. The  LSDF was established in 2005 from WA’s share of national tobacco settlement funds.  Both the Governor’s budget and the one previously approved by the House had cut  BHP, along  with the DSHS long-standing  interpreter services program for  Medicaid and CHIP patients  These potentially promising developments however have garnered less attention than another set of proposals in HB 1847 ,which would  to sustain funding for BHP by eliminating tax exemptions for Big Banking,  and sales taxes on elective cosmetic surgery and private jets. 

While advocates regard these developments as positive, the struggle is far from over. The Supplemental budget is now undergoing the reconciliation process by both houses and will needs the Governor’s approval; the Biennial budget  will have its turn next. Both contain deep cuts in virtually every area of life affecting Washingtonians, with the worst cuts affecting the most vulnerable populations, especially immigrants and refugees. WA Budget cuts 2011.

The history of these two programs is of particular note at this critical time.  The original intent of the Master Tobacco Settlement Agreement was to fund health services in the states for those affected by smoking.  At the time, Gov. Gregoire, aware that the state would come into additional funds from that source by 2009, planned a move to combine them with private monies to develop a biotech sector.  In a  2005 commentary prescient of current threat of extinction for the Basic Health Program (which began as a 1987 pilot project and became permanent in 1993) the Seattle Weekly had reported:

It will be controversial because originally the tobacco settlement money was supposed to be used to help states offset the health care costs associated with smoking. In 2003, when Gary Locke floated an idea similar to the Life Science Discovery Fund—he called it Bio21—Senate Majority Leader Brown told Seattle Weekly she didn’t like the idea of using tobacco money for biotechnology. “We are one of the few states that has remained true to using that money for health care,” she said at the time. Expect the debate over the best use of the tobacco money to continue.

As I had written previously, in late October 2010, after the Governor had issued her call for “across the board budget cuts” from every state agency, the LSDF awarded $5 million to a private company engaged in personalized medicine research.  Last week, LSDF awarded $600,000 in commercialization grants to four research projects.

The Interpreter Services program also was created as a result of federal litigation, in this case as a result of a 1991 Consent Decree negotiated with the Office of Civil Rights in response to lawsuits and civil rights complaints filed against DSHS for failing to provide equal access to services for clients with limited English proficiency  By law, in this case the Civil Rights Act of 1964, title VI, recipients of federal funds must not discriminate against program beneficiaries on the basis of race, color, or national origin.  Courts have defined lack of language access as a form of discrimination based on national origin. However, the responsibility to fund language services is ultimately that of providers. Since  techncially Washington funded the DSHS program voluntarily, it is now able to seek to de-fund it, unlike other mandatory programs. But in doing so, the state would also forgo specific federal funds that it has been receiving that have covered 50-75% of the total costs, as the Washington State Coalition for Language Access explains in a fact sheet:  WASCLA DSHS Interpreter Services Talking Points January 2011

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A front-page article published on February 1 by  The Seattle Times, now the Emerald City’s  sole remaining daily newspaper, purporting to describe new state demographic trends, is causing outrage at a very critical time. At this very moment  the draconian cuts proposed by the Governor to balance the budget, are the subject of  contention in the Legislature  as advocates  struggle to convince lawmakers to preserve at least the semblance of a safety net .  The program cuts would disproportionately affect poor immigrants and refugees and communities of color, as the planned terminations cut deeply into a range of services from state food assistance, citizenship programs, Medicaid medical interpreter services, to health insurance plans which now cover noncitizen adults and some 27,000 children enrolled in the Children’s Health program of Apple Health for Kids, among other vital services.  In addition, other bills being considered would promote racial/ethnic profiling of state residents, including requiring citizenship checks of applicants for drivers’ licenses to those targeting youth for incarceration on the basis of presumed but not proven gang affiliations.

So it seems like more than a coincidence that the Times story Illegal-immigrant numbers in state jump 35% in 3 years was published the day before the Senate Ways & Means Committee was to hold a hearing on the 2011 Supplemental Budget bill which encompasses all of the cuts. The Times article discussed a just-released report from the Pew Hispanic Center  entitled Unauthorized Immigrant Population:
National and State Trends, 2010,
about  results of the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. Beyond  just the damage that the inflammatory  and dehumanizing language of the article’s title can cause in the court of public opinion , it turns out that reporter Lornet Turnbull  got his facts wrong too.  Subsequently Jeff Passel, one of the authors of the Pew report, was interviewed by a reporter for local radio station.   Passel said that based on the Census data, there was no evidence that Washington’s undocumented population had increased, pointing to the high margin of error in the data analysis and its very small sample size, and more pointedly, that the Seattle Times had not done fact-checking with Pew.  The  Feb. 3 interview Dispute About Growth Of Undocumented Immigrants In Wash. can be heard in its entirety on the KUOW website.

In these desperate economic times, articles like this one in the Seattle Times serve only to scapegoat all immigrants for the economic woes of the state (and the nation) instead of focusing on the genuine causes of the recession.  Over 400 comments  have been posted in response so far, most of them of a hate-mongering nature.  Recognition that Washington’s regressive tax structure means that all of us contribute at the same (sales tax) rate to state coffers, regardless of immigration status or income, is handily overlooked by the ranters. Interestingly, the Times has posted a partial correction to the article, explaining that undocumented people constitute a small  fraction of the state’s population

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that illegal immigrants accounted for nearly 5 percent of the state’s population, giving Washington the seventh highest rate of illegal immigrants in the nation. A Pew Hispanic Center report, on which the story was based, incorrectly attributed the percentage and ranking to Washington state rather than to the District of Columbia. The center has corrected the information in its online report to reflect that illegal immigrants comprise 3.4 percent of Washington state’s population, a rate that does not rank it among the top 10 states.

The story’s problematc title and other content inaccuracies however remain the same, its damage done.  Use of attention-grabbing headlines is a journalistic technique of course; likewise  fewer readers ever bother to go back to read corrections.

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The end of the year with its annual holidays found many  of us here in Washington State feeling anything but in a festive mood, given the imminent decimation of core health and human services, as part of  the Governor’s proposal for balancing of the state’s  budget in the new year and for the biennium.  On September 13th, Governor Gregoire’s Executive Order 10-04 instructed all state agencies to make reductions in their allotments from the State General fund in order to meet the requirement for a balanced  budget. On September 29, DSHS issued its initial plan of how the 6.3% across-the-board budget cuts would be applied to Department programs to meet this mandate. The proposed cuts were aimed at every program and service (included some entirely state-funded and other linked to Medicaid)  not technically defined as “mandatory,” affecting the state’s most vulnerable populations in all age-groups from pre-cradle to grave, and including  primary care delivered at community health centers.

By December, a supplemental budget proposal with even worse news was issued, containing further  proposals for achieving the needed $4 billion in savings to balance the budget. The drastic cuts to almost every aspect of civic life, was driven by outcomes of  ballot measures  from the November elections, which dashed any hopes even of short-term new revenue generation  from snack sales, rejection of a first-ever state income tax to have been levied only on the wealthiest among us, and hamstrung future legislative efforts to raise taxes with the 2/3 majority approval stipulation.  By December 30, the Governor released the latest list of planned budget cuts,and the timeline for their elimination. While some of the worst of the cuts have been staved off or delayed temporarily, it still remains to be seen whether the remaining services will be funded, even in vastly reduced mode, and how many human beings affected by the cuts will even survive.

While at this stage in my life nothing surprises me any more, the discrepancy between what is happening to these most basic of services and the treatment of the high-profile, socially attractive high tech sector by state government should be a wake up call to all of us who value a decent society. While the majority of Washingtonians have not misbehaved, it seems like the most vulnerable among us are being singled out for punishment.

State Dollars > Private Venture

During exactly same time period that the budget cuts were first announced in October, another state agency, the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, gave a grant of $5 million to a private, for-profit business, the Omeros Corporation, a Seattle biopharmaceutical company, for  research into speculative personalized medicines. The grant to Omeros was rolled into a package deal for the firm, that included $25M from Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital. Even Xconomy: Seattle‘s biotech reporter Luke Timmerman expressed great surprise at this development in his Dec. 14 article entitled Life Sciences Discovery Fund Debunks Perceptions with Omeros Deal, Shows State Can Bankroll Companies. If the research ever pans out, then there is the possibility of financial returns to the state at some unknown time in the future.

A bit of background: Washington’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund was established by the Legislature in 2005 to disburse the tobacco settlement funds allocated to the state. While the the fund originally had been allocated $350M for a 10-year period, when the State’s budget crisis threatened to shut down the program in 2009, it survived with a budget cut of 41% or $39M in funds for FYs 2009-2011. The LSDF’s  stated mission is as follows:

The Life Sciences Discovery Fund supports innovative research in Washington state to promote life sciences competitiveness, enhance economic vitality, and improve health and health care.

which the  program website further explains as intending to “foster growth of the state’s life sciences sector and improve the health and economic wellbeing of its residents.”

But given the crisis situation we now face–in context of course of the ongoing national recession–emergency measures are needed.  It hardly seems the time for state government to be investing in private companies, purely ethical issues aside for the moment. Obviously, it’s going to take more than redirecting the “mere” $5M given by the LSDF to a private venture to save public health services in Washington State, but those funds certainly could have turned things around for a good number of the axed programs, such as the Basic Health Program insurance plan and so many Medicaid services.  While research is important, without access to care, medical innovations are meaningless.  What good is research, if there is no safety net? Given the LSDF’s mission, it should be part of the logical solution needed  now: making sure that all Washingtonians can benefit from the medical knowledge available today. And the state government can take a leadership role too in education on the need for investment in our human capital. Despite laments over the election outcomes,and grim prognostics, the official ChooseWashington.com website continues to highlight the array of attractive tax incentives, some of which I had commented on previously, for certain types of companies to set up shop here, along with the absence of a personal income tax.

Another part of the Governor’s plan to balance the budget, announced December 14, is to eliminate Boards and Commissions. No mention was made in this announcement, however, about the status of  a brand-new board, the Global Health Technologies Competitiveness Board established in July 2010, after SB 6675 Creating the Washington global health technologies and product development competitiveness program and allowing certain tax credits for program contributions, was approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Gregoire. Per RCW 43.374.010, among the Board’s charges are seeking funding from the private sector, foundations, and the federal government in order to issue grants to local enterprises …to stimulate our economy and foster job creation in the emerging field of global health while improving the health of people in our state and the world. The program is required to be administered by a 501(c)6 tax-exempt nonprofit organization, which contracts with the Dept. of Commerce for administrative services.

The Global Health Technologies Competitiveness Program (GHTCP) was awarded $1M by the Legislature (evidently not subject to the budget cuts) and issued its first RFP in mid-November, with awards expected to be announced early in the new year, along with a second RFP announcement, according to the Washington Global Health Alliance.

Think Globally, Act Locally ?

These new developments beg the question of just exactly what these specific state-funded programs are doing to improve the health  of Washington residents in the here and now. I write these words from the perspective of understanding full well how domestic and  international health are inextricably linked, whether regarding diseases rapidly transcending national borders or concerning the impact of international trade agreements on availability of medicines for US Medicaid programs, just to name a few examples. I myself am alive today partly as a result of medical advances developed here in Seattle, and I am also directly involved with both local and global health equity work, which makes me even more appalled at what is going on. Global health has been described as Seattle’s “next hot industry,” but few are the public voices applying critical thinking skills to analyze what this actually means for local folks. One of the exceptions is that of Seattle journalist Tom Paulson, who now offers insights on his Humanosphere blogsuch as a November 2010 story on a still-vague, 5-year  $1M  Swedish Medical Center pilot project called Global to Local targeting two low-income communities in  South King County.  Tom pointed out the irony  of this program being rolled out at the very same time that well-established and proven-effective, public health services are being slashed. According to the article, G2L is based on a concept that the “best practices” used by local actors in overseas health programs can be applied here at home too, while structural reasons for domestic health and healthcare inequalities are not addressed. And another observer, Steve Gloyd, MD of Health Alliance International and the UW Dept. of Global Health, has opined that there can be an upside to calling global health an “industry”:

“Maybe using the word will shock people into recognizing that when a local biotech firm says it is working on a vaccine to help people in Africa, some will see it is actually just trying to make a few people in Seattle rich.”

Next year, a new nonprofit called Global Health Nexus will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair with a major conference and exhibition showcasing the region’s global-health advancements. One has to wonder if anyone working to improve health at the local level will be invited to present, or if we’ll be able to afford the registration fees. Perhaps advocates can submit an abstract for a session there featuring real-life Washingtonians sharing first-hand accounts of the outcomes of state budget cuts on preventable health problems, such as  a child who has  been experiencing asthma attacks since elimination of the Children’s Health Program; an adult with diabetes who had to get their leg amputated due to lack of non-emergency podiatry care;  or the relative of a patient who died due to a wrong diagnosis resulting from lack of a medical interpreter;  or we could show  videos of overflowing ERs full of patients bumped from the Basic Health Program and unable to be seen at community clinics. Then maybe we could pass the hat among the rich and famous to take to up a collection for local health.

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