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  • Thursday, February 28, 2008 9:12am

By Sen. Darlene Fairley

The Washington Basic Health Plan (BHP) must be cut because we simply can’t afford it, according to state budget writers. I beg to differ and would ask, “Is hurting the poorest of our working families really cost effective?”

We should be proud that Washington has led the nation in providing subsidized health care coverage to low-income people. The BHP, which became a permanent statewide program in 1993, offers low-cost health insurance to the working poor. Enrollment is limited to individuals with annual income of less than $17,000, or couples earning less than $24,000. In actuality, though, most BHP enrollees have incomes of less than $9,000 per individual.

Two proposals in Olympia should have all of us worried. The governor’s budget would prevent 60,000 childless adults from access to the BHP. More than one-third of these adults are older than 55 — too young for Medicare and too poor to afford insurance on the open market.

The Senate Republicans’ supplemental budget, which has already cleared the Senate, would freeze new enrollments, reducing the BHP by 25,000 members in a matter of months. Some 6,600 people now sit on the waiting list for BHP coverage. If the Senate Republicans’ freeze is approved, these people will have no hope of getting health care.

So what happens to people without reliable access to health care?

Preventable illnesses turn into medical tragedies. People end up in emergency rooms, the most expensive place to receive medical care. And the state and hospitals will pick up the tab. This desperate approach will result in a cost shift, not a cost savings.

In fact, Harborview Medical Center alone anticipates costs of $3.2 million if the governor’s budget is adopted. This would be a major blow to hospitals statewide — not just to Harborview, our state’s No. 1 trauma center.

I believe that keeping people healthy is, in itself, good fiscal policy. BHP members are people in low-paying jobs, whose employers don’t offer benefits. They are the working poor, struggling to make ends meet. If they get sick and miss work, they may not be able to pay the rent or the heating bill. Access to health care keeps them in the work force, out of the hospital and off welfare.

These are tough economic times. There is simply not enough money in the budget, and we all know that painful choices have to be made. But are we really so short-sighted that we think denying health care to tens of thousands of Washington residents will actually help us out of this mess?

Hurting the working poor is not only morally wrong, it’s fiscally irresponsible.

Sen. Darlene Fairley (D-Lake Forest Park) represents the 32nd Legislative District, which includes Woodway. She is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Ways &Means Committee and serves on the Government Operations &Elections Committee.

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