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Originally published Monday, November 21, 2011 at 3:47 PM

Guest columnist

Eliminating Washington's Basic Health Plan will hurt economic recovery

Guest columnists Don Brennan and Phil Haas urge the Washington state Legislature not to eliminate the state's innovative Basic Health Plan, which provides health-care coverage for 35,000 people. They argue its elimination will lengthen the economic downturn as people go without treatment or seek expensive emergency-room care.

Special to The Times

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IN 1987, Washington state created an innovative program that provided subsidized coverage to the working poor. Since then, the Basic Health program has served hundreds of thousands of individuals and families, keeping people healthier and able to work.

Fast-forward to 2011: The Basic Health program, which now serves 35,000 people, is at risk for total elimination, leaving these residents without the health care they need to keep themselves and their families from falling victim to a worsening chronic condition or a mental-health condition in full crisis mode.

And that's not even accounting for the more than 150,000 people on the waiting list for Basic Health or the more than 70,000 individuals who have already lost Basic Health coverage because of earlier budget cuts.

The prospect for elimination is ironic because today Basic Health enrollees cost the state less than ever before. We now have federal matching funds, leaving the state with just 50 percent of the cost, as opposed to the full freight. That federal waiver program was intended to help the state provide health-care coverage until the federal Affordable Care Act goes into effect in 2014.

The health-care needs of these residents won't disappear just because public programs go away. When individuals don't have health coverage, they seek help from hospital emergency departments. That means we're treating people when they're sicker and we are treating them in an expensive setting that is not geared toward chronic-disease management or prevention.

It also means higher costs and longer wait times for those who do have coverage.

The Basic Health program has played an important role in extending the safety net to provide coverage to many low-income people who can't afford to purchase coverage on their own and don't qualify for Medicaid. It's much easier to retain an infrastructure than to build a new one from scratch.

Simply put, leaving people without health insurance lengthens the recession and imposes costs on us all. We agree with Gov. Chris Gregoire — her initial all-cuts budget isn't one that the Legislature should adopt. The Basic Health program should not fall victim to budget cuts, especially now, when they're needed more than ever.

Don Brennan, left, is chair of the Washington Healthcare Forum, an organization made up of doctors, hospitals and health plans that work together to improve the health-care system. Phil Haas is chair of the Association of Washington Healthcare Plans, the voice of Washington's health-care insurers.

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