We cannot leave our most vulnerable behind in struggle to balance budget

November 13, 2012 

The election is over and, to quote Corinthians, it’s time to “put away childish things.”

That includes any notion we can serve both the educational needs of our kids and the care needs of an aging society without tax increases. Instead, some believe efficiency’s magic wand can conjure more savings from a government workforce reduced 11.2 percent since the last gubernatorial election.

With no competing message, voters overwhelmingly embraced no-new-taxes Initiative 1185. This page was an exception, forewarning in a Sept. 14 editorial that “a big schizoid chunk of the electorate seems to want a generous state government – without spending another nickel on it.”

As Olympia’s outgoing adult, Gov. Chris Gregoire knows abracadabra government doesn’t work and will suggest a tax increase. Governor-elect Jay Inslee would be wise to keep options open. He has the initial benefit of being an outsider to Olympia in approaching harsh realities. He didn’t create them.

Just to satisfy the judicial funding edict for K-12 education would cost the next state budget – according to another adult, House budget chair Ross Hunter – at least another $1 billion on top of the billion the budget will be short. Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn is looking for an extra $4.1 billion, of which school districts would bear a share.

A strong education system, including higher education, is key to economic prosperity and the middle-class jobs politicians touted in every campaign ad and speech. But not all can ascend into prosperity. Some, by reason of age or infirmity, are state wards and our moral responsibility.

Every governor wants to be an “education governor.” No one talks about being a “disabilities governor,” and disabilities’ funding goes largely unmentioned in political discourse. Yet we must invest in our vulnerable, too.

For example, an arbitrator recommended pay increases to state-paid home care workers beset with years of arbitrary care-hour reductions. By July 2014, starting hourly wages may rise to $11.04 – $1.85 above 2013’s minimum wage and likely less than your barista makes.

Can there be any moral question of paying this bill? Roughly 37,000 Washingtonians receive in-home care, and the federal government will pick up half the cost of a caregiver wage increase.

While the population receiving skilled care in nursing homes has declined dramatically – around 10 percent just since 2008 – those remaining are truly sick. Almost 10,000 of these Medicaid patients live in fear of state cuts, a proposed 31 percent cut under Paul Ryan’s U.S. House budget, and the dangling Jan. 2 federal “sequestration” sword of Damocles.

Any cuts would affect wages. Currently, 56 percent of an average patient’s Medicaid payment reimburses direct or therapy care, while 13 percent reimburses support services such as kitchen and housekeeping staff.

Largely forgotten in the middle of this care continuum are much-cut residential care (such as assisted living) facilities.

The consequences of underfunding long-term care are literally life or death. Care violations recently threatened closure of 13 of the state’s own group homes. One malnourished resident ate wall plaster.

By 2030, there will be more people 85 and older in our state – the very-elderly commonly associated with nursing home care – than Spokane or Tacoma’s current population. This age wave will collide with our kids’ needs. Will the results be survival of the fittest?

Two changes might help.

 • Legislators should create committees that focus discretely on long-term care issues lost in health care policy, especially as reform moves forward.

 • Short of breaking up the massive Department of Social & Health Services, Inslee should have its head of Aging & Disability Services directly report to him. The vulnerable deserve a visible champion like the superintendent of public instruction – not a mere implementer of budget cuts.

A state moving forward must not leave anyone behind.

Olympia attorney Brendan Williams is a former state representative and advocate for people with disabilities.

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