Cuts to a lifeline

  • By Sharon Salyer Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, January 5, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

For the past six months, 59-year-old Cheri Bellinger has been surviving on $339 a month.

The Everett woman said the disability payments she received from the state is her only source of income.

Bellinger qualified for the money, known as Disability Lifeline, after being treated for cancerous polyps last year and having half her colon removed.

The disability payments have been a lifesaver, she said. “I don’t know what I would have done without it. While I recovered from my surgery, I wouldn’t have had any money.”

As of this month, that payment was cut to $266. And Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed eliminating the payments entirely in March as part of the state’s massive budget cutting plan.

The cuts would affect 21,000 disabled people in Washington, including about 4,000 people in Snohomish County.

Disability Lifeline is just one of scores of state social service programs being proposed for cuts or elimination as part of the state budget crisis.

Also on the chopping block are: the Basic Health Plan, the state-subsidized program which helps provide health care for 56,000 low-income working adults including 4,240 patients in Snohomish County; a program that provides medical interpreters for non-English speakers; and stipends for eye glasses and hearing aids for Medicaid patients.

The state Legislature will have final say-so on all recommendations.

The programs, and the proposed cuts, were the subject of hot debate in Olympia on Tuesday.

Democratic leaders said they oppose eliminating either the Disability Lifeline or the Basic Health Plan.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, defended both programs as invaluable threads in the state’s safety net of social services.

They said they’ll look to trim some of the costs of operating each program and find other places in the state budget to cut.

But Gregoire has said that the state’s budget is in such bad shape that there aren’t many options left to cut.

Some of the patients affected by cuts to Disability Lifeline are far younger than Bellinger. Jessica Weber, 29, of Everett said she was diagnosed in September 2008 with fibromyalgia, which causes fatigue and pain in muscles. She said she also has mental health problems, such as major depression.

Like Bellinger, her payments are being cut to $266 a month, although she said her $200 monthly payments for food will continue.

“I don’t think the majority of people realize what the lower class has to do to skim by on life,” Weber said. “They probably have good jobs and homes and have never seen this side of the fence.”

Bellinger said she’s begun making her own budget cuts to stretch her $266 monthly income. She said she has been getting by in part because her landlord lets her stay, as long as she can pay something.

“I just don’t buy things,” she said. “You cut back on makeup, hair products, no frills.”

The state will provide medical benefits, which will pay for colon checkups and prescriptions.

Bellinger said she’s worked all her life in a variety of jobs, grooming horses, working on dairy farms and at restaurants, starting and stopping because of bouts of mental illness.

Bellinger said she gets frustrated when she hears people assume that those receiving the disability payments are abusing the system.

“People my age have kind of fallen through the cracks,” she said.

“Obviously with my age, I hope to have a stable job and work to retirement age or greater,” she said.

About 1,400 of the county’s 4,240 Basic Health Plan patients are treated at the Community Health Center of Snohomish County.

The state-sponsored program provides low-cost health care coverage through private health plans.

The Community Health Center of Snohomish County was founded to help provide medical care to people without health insurance. But if the Basic Health Plan is cut, patients would have to pay a minimum of $20 and perhaps as much as $50 for an office visit depending on their income, said Bob Farrell, chief financial officer.

Government money to help pay for the care of low-income patients only goes so far, he said. That allows the organization to provide basic health services on a sliding fee.

“I think a lot of people will simply not come and seek care,” Farrell said. “I think a lot of people will end up in emergency rooms for things they can’t wait on.”

Group Health, which cares for 10,000 Basic Health Plan patients, is working hard to keep the state-subsidized health care plan alive, said Diana Rakow, executive director of public policy.

Group Health and other organizations that support the program are looking for revenue sources that don’t hurt small businesses, the economy or individuals, she said. The goal is to keep Basic Health operational until federal health reforms are scheduled to be fully enacted in 2014, she said.

The proposed elimination of medical interpreter services in March will affect about 20 percent of patients at the nonprofit Providence Everett Healthcare Clinic, said Lisa Carroll, clinic manager.

The clinic scheduled about 14,000 medical appointments last year.

If the interpreter program is cut, the clinic will link the patients with interpreters over the phone, rather than having them present during office visits.

“It works, but it doesn’t work well,” Carroll said. “It will really hamper people coming in for services.”

The Associated Press and Herald reporter Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com.

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