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By The Skanner News | The Skanner News
Published: 01 April 2009

Cuts to the health care safety net will increase health disparities in Washington state, according to a report by Washington health officials.

The report, by the Washington State Board of Health in collaboration with the Governor's Interagency Council on Health Disparities, was released hours after the Washington State House of Representatives released its proposed budget.

"Communities of color disproportionately depend on public health insurance programs to cover their health care needs," said Tony Lee, policy director of the Statewide Poverty Action Network.  "It is important to save the health care safety net to ensure that we do not exacerbate racial disparities in health care."

Health advocates from Washington CAN! say the cuts will hit some of the most vulnerable populations in the state. Cuts to the General Assistance -- Unemployable program will force individuals with serious behavioral and physical health problems to go without their basic needs including access to health care, housing, and food.

The health and safety of Native Americans and African Americans, in particular, will be compromised by cuts to the insurance program because these communities are overrepresented among its enrollees.

"GAU provided me with support when I needed it most to put my life back on track," said Regina Owens, a Filipino member of the Washington Community Action Network, who became disabled after a car accident which rendered her unable to work.

An assessment of proposed cuts to the state's Basic Health Plan exposed similar trends and consequences for communities of color. As the report notes, a 43 percent cut to BHP will result in higher rates of uninsured individuals in the state, above all Latinos, African Americans, low-income individuals, and women.

With 60 percent of Basic Health's adult enrollees being women, reductions in funding for the plan will leave a considerable number of women and people of color without access to a doctor when they need it most.

While the report finds that cuts will increase racial disparities in health care, it also notes that cuts to the health care safety net will have negative consequences for all Washingtonians.

"Healthy people make for a healthy economy," says Deana Knutsen, board chair of the Washington Community Action Network. "The health care safety net should be untouchable, especially during hard economic times when people need it most."

Requests for an investigation into racial disparities of health care cuts, formally termed a health impact review, were submitted by Sen. Rosa Franklin and Reps Dawn Morrell and Sharon Tomiko Santos.

Through consultation with various state agencies and departments, the State Board of Health processed the request and published a summary of the findings. The report includes an evaluation of proposed cuts to BHP, GAU, the Apple Health for Kids program, and the Universal Vaccine program.

The report recommends maintaining and/ or increasing funding for health coverage to ensure continued access to care and called attention to the long term cost savings programs like GAU and BHP will generate for the state. Investments in the health care safety net in times of need will help prevent the widening of racial health disparities in Washington State.

A full copy of the report is available on the State Board of Health's website http://www.sboh.wa.gov/HIR/Requests.htm#2009-01 .

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