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In our view: Unkindest Cuts

State's one-size-fits-all approach to budget woes ignores human cost of funding crisis

The Columbian
Published: November 28, 2010, 12:00am

On a philosophical level, slashing budgets can be a cold and surgical undertaking. Many a newly elected public official won office thanks to a mantra of “low taxes, less government spending.”

But the rhetoric takes on a new paradigm when you begin to put a human face to the cuts.

Such is the case with planned reductions to the Medicaid programs provided by the Washington Department of Social and Health Services. Beginning March 1 of next year, the department plans to eliminate coverage for outpatient prescription drugs provided by retail pharmacies to an estimated 277,000 clients.

That’s nearly 300,000 Washington residents who rely on prescription drugs to adequately function. Nearly 300,000 neighbors and co-workers and children who often are in desperate need of this government assistance. Not to mention the fact that many of those people will then rely upon costly emergency-room visits for their medical care.

So, as much as we desire simple solutions to complex problems, the reality is that such answers cannot be reduced to a sound bite.

Like all state departments, DSHS — the state’s largest agency — is being required to slash 6.27 percent of its expenditures, cuts that in this case amount to $520 million. It’s all part of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s one-size-fits-all solution to a projected $5.7 billion gap in the state budget for the 2011-13 cycle.

The need for cuts is obvious, even if across-the-board reductions are morally indefensible, suggesting that all departments and all services are of equal importance. Washington, like most government entities these days, is facing dire financial straits as it waits for an economic recovery that might or might not happen. Citizens in all regions of the state and all walks of life will be impacted by a reduction in services provided by the state.

With cuts being inevitable, we applaud Gov. Gregoire’s long-overdue decision to reopen contract negotiations with public-employee unions, as allowed under state law RCW 41.80.010(6), which deals with collective bargaining agreements for state employees.

In fact, the law is rather clear in mandating negotiations: “If, after the compensation and fringe benefit provisions of an agreement are approved by the legislature, a significant revenue shortfall occurs resulting in reduced appropriations, as declared by proclamation of the governor or by resolution of the legislature, both parties shall immediately enter into collective bargaining for a mutually agreed upon modification of the agreement.”

Finally, apparently, the state has recognized that it is facing a significant revenue shortfall. At least significant enough to sit down with state-employee unions.

Negotiating new salaries and benefits with state workers, asking them to tighten their belts like everybody else, won’t solve Washington’s budget deficit in its entirety. But it would make a dent and it would foster an atmosphere of shared sacrifice.

Which brings us to people such as Vancouver’s Debb Snyder, whose reliance upon the state’s Medicaid program was chronicled recently by reporter Kathie Durbin for The Columbian. Snyder depends on the drug Klonopin to control her grand mal seizures. The brand-name drug costs $627, while a similar prescription of a generic drug — which Snyder said has been ineffective for her — costs $18.

That is the kind of dilemma that is created by the state’s plan to cut off Snyder and thousands of others from their state-funded medication. And it is one without a simple solution as we weigh the obligation for a society to provide care for its most needy members.

Snyder is a real person. A real issue. A human face on the cold and surgical across-the-board cuts. And she deserves more thought and consideration than can be found in ideological philosophizing.

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