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Legislators weigh in on Medicaid’s future

POULSBO — After dodging the Medicaid cut bullet earlier this year, officials, residents, employees, supporters and families at Martha and Mary Lutheran Services received some sobering news last Friday — they’ll have to do it again next year.

The report came during a 23rd Legislative District forum at the Front Street long-term care facility as Sen. Betti Sheldon, Rep. Bev Woods and Rep. Phil Rockefeller explained the dire financial straits that the Washington State economy was attempting to navigate.

“We’ve certainly had a lot of issues with long-term care this past year,” Martha and Mary Executive Director Denney Austin explained.

Austin was referring to Gov. Gary Locke’s Åoriginal 2002 budget proposal, which sought to partially fill in the state’s $1.6 billion deficit via huge Medicaid cuts to the long-term health care industry.

With more than 70 percent of its residents reliant on the state-supported Medicaid, Martha and Mary would have faced a potential annual loss of $1.1 million — something that could have ended the center’s 111-year status in Poulsbo. Austin and numerous others from the long-term health care industry made Olympia a regular stop during the budget discussion and, as a result, were able to avert the enormous cuts for the time being.

“The legislature certainly listened to us and supported us,” he said.

This support might not stand the test of time though and the three legislators hinted that the unrealized Medicare nightmare of 2002 could very well become a reality next year.

“You all have concerns about the stability of long-term care facilities such as this,” Rep. Rockefeller said, addressing a crowded room at Martha and Mary. “We listened and responded.”

However, Rockefeller admitted, this response might be severely diminished in 2003.

“The entire system is at risk today,” he pointed out. “We dodged a bullet this year but we’ll have to do it again next year. We’ll do our best to do this next year.”

Sheldon shared this pragmatic viewpoint.

“We did not make the deep cuts,” she explained, noting that while excellent health care was helping seniors live longer, fuller lives it was also a severe strain on the economy. “The good news is that we’re living longer. The bad news is that we’re living longer.”

Sheldon said she had learned some valuable life lessons about the health care industry from her ailing mother several years ago, adding, “Hopefully, we will always recognize the challenges you face either as an aging adult or as a caregiver.”

The challenges won’t be limited to the elderly and infirmed next year, the three agreed before explaining how revenue shortfalls were having a ripple effect on the entire state economy. The loss of Motor Vehicle Excise Tax revenues, tougher sentences on criminals and financial problems cause by everything from traffic to Sept. 11 were listed as reasons why the state was in its current predicament.

“This eroded the budget and we had to backfill,” Sheldon said, noting that reserve funds and promised tabacco settlement dollars were used to balance things out.

Rep. Woods openly criticized the state’s approved plan, though, noting that the one-time dollars used to plug the gap in the budget would only create new problems in 2003.

“That hole will just be open again next year,” she explained, noting that the legislature did nothing substantial to curtail spending . “Health care is on the radar screen — it’s not going away.”

The legislators also concurred that the state had to discover a way to “kick start” the economy and stimulate growth.

“The State of Washington is on the cusp,” Sheldon said. A transportation tax, which the legislature hopes will assist in both creating jobs and lessening traffic, is in the works to bring the state back from the brink, she added. “We don’t want to underestimate the importance of that tax.”

Taxes aside, some at the session felt the legislature had lost touch with the people they are supposed to be representing.

Responding to allegations that neither she nor her cohorts witnessed the impacts of budget cuts and that the Legislature as a whole viewed the populace in terms of dollar signs, Sheldon said, “Behind every single program that’s cut — there’s a face. The legislature realizes this. We aren’t oblivious to what’s going on. We don’t go to Olympia and lose our wits.”

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