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March 7, 2011

Opinion: Ending Basic Health would cost us all more


People should be able to see a doctor if they get sick.

It sounds simple. But for more and more families in Washington, it's getting harder to see a doctor because it's getting harder to afford health care coverage.

Without health insurance and affordable preventive care, people wait longer to treat problems and rely on more expensive emergency care. The cost of their care is then passed on to you and me through higher costs for services and premiums.

Washington's Basic Health Plan was designed to promote cost-saving preventive care by expanding health insurance options for lower-income families across Washington.

This reduced-cost plan saves us all money over time, but a harsh recession and several years of budget cuts have stripped Basic Health to its bare bones.

Because of the recession, we have fewer tax dollars coming in, which means less money for classrooms, health care and essential services.

Over the past two sessions, the Legislature has cut more than $4.7 billion from the state operating budget; we face billions more this session. Prioritizing the best use of limited tax dollars has involved painfully difficult choices. Prioritizing Basic Health is an easy choice. I recently signed on to support legislation, House Bill 1847, to end some unjustified tax giveaways and use those savings to fund Basic Health.

We can either continue giving away tax dollars to Wall Street banks, private-jet owners and air-polluting coal plants, or we can use that money to help provide health care coverage for Washingtonians.

Basic Health offers preventive care, regular check-ups and help with prescription drugs so people can stay healthy and stay out of more expensive emergency rooms. Enrollees have to pay for their coverage, but the cost is lower than what is charged by private insurers.

There is no Wall Street bank or coal plant that can do as much for Washington as Basic Health — so why should we give them our tax dollars?

Giving tax cuts such as $200 million to big out-of-state banks or $16 million to elective cosmetic surgery clients just doesn't make sense. At one point, perhaps these preferences were well-intentioned, but I don't see how we can justify them in today's economic environment.

Not only is investing in health care a good choice now, it's a choice we've made before. In 1988, Washingtonians decided to pool our resources and pay a little for preventive care in order to avoid more expensive emergency rooms. We started a pilot program called “Basic Health” to provide preventive care to high-risk people in King and Spokane counties.

The program was such a success, it expanded statewide. More families could afford to see a doctor when they needed one. Help was available for life-saving prescription drugs.

By 2000, Basic Health provided coverage to nearly 215,000 Washingtonians. In 2001, voters approved Initiative 773 to use tobacco taxes to expand Basic Health to cover more people.

In 2006, we gave priority enrollment to veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, so they could get coverage right away.

Then the recession happened. As the need for public services such as Basic Health increased, we found ourselves with fewer resources to provide them.

In 2008, eligibility was reduced, leaving people without access to care. In 2009, patient costs and deductibles nearly doubled. In 2010, the waiting list skyrocketed to over 137,000 people, and it continues to grow.

In 2011, there is talk of having to eliminate the entire program altogether.

Ending Basic Health would cost us all more.

We have a choice. If we're going to give anyone a break using our tax dollars, I'd rather invest in the health of hard-working Washington families than the bank accounts of the well-heeled. End the tax giveaways and support the health of our neighbors with the Washington Basic Health Plan.

State Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, represents the 27th Legislative District in the state House of Representatives.

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