This year’s state legislative session–which was due to end on Sunday, but will undoubtedly go into mandatory overtime–has been an astonishingly unproductive one. Last year at the polls, Democrats overthrew the Republican control of the Senate and managed to install enough newcomers in the House to provide an even split of 49 Dems to 49 Repubs. But the Dems haven’t made hay from this upset, as the lack of decent legislation this year has shown.
The main problem lies in the House, where the tie between parties has produced two co-speakers of the House and two co-chairmen for every House committee. Instead of working from the start to line up sympathetic moderate Republicans to break the tie, the Dems have been happy to sit tight and play party politics…and watch most of their bills get buried in committee.
Our democratic Governor Gary Locke hasn’t been any help, either. Instead of actively working to find more money for teacher salaries, push the legislature to spend up to the I-601 limit, or press for strengthening access to health care coverage, he’s given in to business and industry concerns on each issue (when he hasn’t simply acted–or refused to act–on something merely out of a sense that he needs to cover his ass for his upcoming re-election).
On teacher salaries, Locke threw out a pitiful proposal of a two percent raise that quickly went down in flames. The Democratic-controlled Senate has come miles closer to teachers’ demands, but should be able to meet them entirely if they weren’t so damn scared of spending the money they already have. (It’s call staying within budget, and there’s nothing wrong with that; you could even make a moral argument that the government is obliged to spend what resources it has to serve its poorest constituents and not sit on an idle pot of money, as Republicans and I-601 supporters want.)
But what irks me the most is that, in the face of the death of the state’s Basic Health Plan, Locke and the legislature are turning away from options to save the plan.
The Basic Health Plan (BHP) was part of a legislative health reform package passed in 1993 in response to grassroots organizing around a national single-payer plan. Activists and legislators crafted a surprisingly good package of benefits at a reasonable price. The legislation also required private health insurers to offer a comparable package to the individual market. But as a half-measure subject to the whims of skyrocketing health care costs, the scissors of a Republican-controlled legislature that gutted it in 1995, and the active dislike of business owners and private insurers, it was doomed to failure.
Going into this legislative session, the BHP needed an enormous cash infusion just to support its current benefit levels. Late last year, the plan was forced to raise its premiums as much as 60-100% for its non-subsidized participants. According to the Seattle Times (4/25/99, pg B1), only about 7,500 people remain in the unsubsidized BHP plan today–half the number covered by the plan in November.
Horribly, during this legislative session, the Dems and Gov. Locke have ignored the needs of the BHP and allowed the insurance industry to dictate terms of the debate. Now, we’re seeing an odious bill that could gut the reform act of 1993 even further to appease private insurers by increasing the wait time for pre-existing conditions to nine months from three (to cut off pregnant women who need maternity benefits), and give an open mandate to insurance companies to raise rates on their individual plans whenever they want (currently the state’s insurance commissioner reviews rate increases and either approves or denies them). Insurers would be able to turn down high-risk individuals for the first time. In response, the state would be forced to revive its high-risk pool for people turned away by private insurers, thereby socializing the highest-cost group needing medical coverage, while privatizing profitable groups.
This is moving the whole health care coverage issue entirely in the opposite direction from where it should be going. The state should call the bluff of private insurers and fiscal conservatives both: dare to spend more money on the BHP, lower rates for participants in the state plan instead of increasing them, let private insurers leave Washington state (we can do without them), and most importantly do something to limit health care costs in the state. Looking northward to Canada can give us a few ideas on how to accomplish that last task.
Fortunately, this very bad bill will probably die from a deadlock in the House. Hopefully this week’s special legislative session will be focused on hammering out the state’s two-year operating budget, the transportation budget, and a construction budget. Let’s hope there’s no time left for legislators to sink the final nails in the coffin of the BHP.