Guest Opinion: Jay Inslee

Our seniors must have quality health care. We can afford Medicre and Medicaid. It is just a matter of getting our priorities straight.

Our senior citizens, our parents and grandparents, made great sacrifices so that we could live better lives. Our families and communities have the responsibility to take care of our aging parents. For those families that cannot afford to provide this care, our nation has devised a number of programs to ensure that all seniors receive adequate health care. Programs such as Medicare and Medicaid have given many seniors access to health care options that would otherwise be unavailable to them.

I find it most dismaying, then, that health care for our seniors is under such a serious threat. Long-term care facilities in Washington State are facing huge and potentially devastating budget cuts in Medicare and Medicaid. Physicians have begun turning new Medicare/Medicaid patients away. Doctors’ offices with a large proportion of seniors on Medicaid have been forced to close.

Right here in our own community, the Martha and Mary Lutheran Services Center in Poulsbo is fighting for its very existence. Other long-term care facilities, such as the Liberty Shores Assisted Living Community and the Harbor House Alzheimer’s Community, are also struggling in the face of potential budget cuts.

When doctors have to turn their backs on new Medicare/Medicaid patients, something is very wrong. I have heard from thousands of constituents about this issue. Like them, I am very concerned about the long-term solvency of these vital programs, especially when the programs are so easily targeted for budget cuts.

Rather than address the Medicare/Medicaid shortfall, however, the majority’s plan in the U.S. House of Representatives would give $256 million in tax breaks to the likes of Enron. I do not support this plan, because the administration should not finance tax cuts by taking funding away from our seniors. The federal government promised to provide essential health care for seniors years ago. Medicare and Medicaid are rooted in the compassionate belief that this country will not leave senior citizens unable to obtain medical care, but the fiscal choices that are now being made in the U.S. House of Representatives could ultimately result in Medicare just “dying on the vine.” We cannot allow that to happen.

Washington State also suffers a geographic discrimination by the Medicare program. Care providers in our state receive lower payments than care providers in other states, even though they provide the exact same services. This is because the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services use a formula to decide how much care providers should be reimbursed, and the formula is based on the regional cost of health care per person.

Long-term care providers in Washington State have worked hard to be efficient and hold their costs down, and now they are being unfairly punished by receiving lower Medicaid payments for their efforts. For example, the Martha and Mary Center has kept its costs down by operating as a non-profit care facility. Since the Center kept its costs down, Medicare and Medicaid Services will pay it less for its work, ostensibly because health care is cheaper in Washington State. This unfair reasoning has resulted in severe budget problems for our local service providers, and causes them to avoid taking on Medicaid and Medicare patients at all.

The Bush administration has not heeded our request to fix this situation.

I recently sent a letter requesting an increase in Medicare reimbursement rates for physicians to Tommy Thompson, the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Secretary Thompson wrote back that any increases in physician reimbursements would have to be paid for by cutting the funding for a different group of providers (such as nursing homes).

The Secretary summed up this situation by writing “improvements in physician payments, or any other Medicare payment, likely will lead to declines in Medicare payments for some other group of providers.” This tactic of robbing Peter to pay Paul will not solve our problems.

We must find a way to be fiscally responsible while maintaining senior care as one of our highest priorities.

After giving so much to our great nation, our seniors deserve the best in top quality, affordable and accessible health care.

In an effort to confront the challenges facing our health care system, I have cosponsored bipartisan legislation, the Medicare Physician Payment Fairness Act of 2001. This measure would increase Medicare payments for physicians, providing a needed respite while Congress and policy experts devise an alternate method for physician payment.

I have also cosponsored similar legislation, the American Hospital Preservation Act of 2001, to address the upcoming shortfall of reimbursements for hospitals. A number of my colleagues and I are now looking at ways to address upcoming cuts in nursing home reimbursements. Clearly this is a first step, but we need to pursue real reform.

If the Martha and Mary Center is forced to shut down because our government refuses to support seniors, we as a society will be turning our backs on the seniors we owe so much.

If we do not adequately fund Medicare and Medicaid, we will be denying seniors their basic right to life-saving health care.

We cannot allow seniors to be turned away from health care because they, or the government, cannot afford it. The truth is that we can afford Medicare and Medicaid. It is just a matter of getting our priorities straight.