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Originally published Thursday, July 14, 2011 at 3:57 PM

Guest columnist

Kids and seniors at serious risk in federal debt-limit battle

While congressional Democrats and Republicans and President Obama tussle over what to do about the federal debt limit, guest columnists Ingrid McDonald and Paola Maranan warn them not to let the fallout harm the most vulnerable: children and senior citizens.

Special to The Times

quotes Are the authors saying we have become a nation of beggars no longer able to care for... Read more
quotes And Medicaid cuts will damage our fragile economic recovery. According to Families USA... Read more
quotes The fact that these discussions are even taking place almost 80 years after passage of... Read more

OUR organizations work to make sure our state is improving the lives of its residents — those just starting down life's path and those who have been around the block. We share a deep concern over the debt-limit deal in the making in Washington, D.C. — a deal that could harm people of all generations.

Many have heard about and voiced their opposition to cuts to Medicare and Social Security benefits that seniors have earned throughout their lifetimes. But lawmakers are also considering changes to Medicaid that could hurt our economy and jeopardize the health of seniors and their grandchildren.

Every day, hundreds of thousands of Washington parents rely on Medicaid to get their kids immunized, take them to a dentist or manage childhood asthma. Expectant mothers get the care they need to deliver healthy babies. Medicaid makes sure that as they grow, those kids get flu shots so they can stay healthy, and hearing and vision tests so they can succeed in school.

Medicaid is also the primary funder of long-term care for seniors. Nearly a third of those turning 65 will have long-term-care costs that exceed their ability to pay and will need Medicaid's assistance. Medicaid is a lifeline for seniors in nursing homes and those struggling to remain in their own homes.

Some proposals promoted in our nation's capital put a stopper in Medicaid with caps, block grants or other budgetary sleights of hand. The idea is to reduce federal spending by shifting costs to states, seniors and vulnerable families. That's not a way forward for our country; cost shifting is not cost control.

If the Senate were to adopt the House's idea of converting Medicaid into a series of block grants, the consequences would be truly breathtaking. Across the state:

• More than 60,000 seniors and people with disabilities — including people in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and those receiving in-home care — would see their coverage reduced or eliminated;

• Hospitals would have to find new ways of paying for 214,000 emergency-room visits;

• One of every three kids would face more problems finding a specialist or primary-care physician.

And Medicaid cuts will damage our fragile economic recovery. According to Families USA, if Medicaid is cut by 33 percent, Washington state could lose as much as $3.5 billion in business activity and 28,030 jobs. Those are jobs and dollars we just can't spare.

Congress believes Medicaid's rising costs make it an easy target. But it's the poor economy that has given jobless Americans no other recourse. And Washington state has deployed winning strategies that already control the program's costs.

By keeping people who don't need expensive nursing-home care in home and community-based care, our state has saved more than $1 billion over the past decade. By making sure children have health coverage through our Medicaid-backed Apple Health for Kids plan, we are solving their health problems before they get more expensive.

If Congress makes forced reductions to Medicaid, optional home-based services could be cut, forcing people to nursing-home care, which costs the state three times as much. If Congress undermines our state's commitment to health coverage for all kids, in the long run we all pay — in the form of higher medical costs, more urgent needs and fewer young people prepared for the challenges of a young century.

Kids and seniors are stronger together when we speak up for the public programs that improve the lives of millions of Americans. We need lawmakers to make decisions that safeguard America's future and steward our public resources wisely. For two generations and counting, Medicaid has been there for us, making a difference every day for people of all ages. We're calling on Congress to keep it strong. We can't let politics uproot years of progress.

Ingrid McDonald, left, is the AARP Washington advocacy director. Paola Maranan is executive director of the Children's Alliance.


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