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 blog. such 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.