It was a long, hard battle in last year's Legislature to save Disability Life- line, a state assistance program for the very poor who cannot work. Now it's starting again: Last week, a top official in the Department of Social and Health Services said the agency is looking at completely eliminating the program.
On Sept. 24, Doug Porter, DSHS's assistant secretary for Health and Recovery Services, told human services providers at a meeting of a state Medicaid advisory group that the agency will have to end the program early next year if anticipated federal funding doesn't come through.
The cut is one of $112 million in reductions that Porter outlined for DSHS's Medicaid Purchasing Administration, says Rebecca Kavoussi, assistant vice president of government affairs for the Community Health Network of Washington. On Sept. 16, in the wake of a revenue forecast showing the state is facing a new deficit of $1.4 billion over the next two years, the governor ordered across-the-board state cuts of 6.3 percent through June 2011.
That comes to a total of $280 mil- lion for DSHS. In January, Porter told the group, the agency will start eliminating a variety of Medicaid services, including adult dental and hearing care, hospice services, podiatry, occupational and physical therapy, maternity support and interpreters.
The Legislature reconvenes in January, but if it hasn't come up with funding by March, Porter said he would also cut prescription drugs for Medicaid recipients and the entire Disability Lifeline program, which provides medical coverage and $339 a month to some 17,000 recipients around the state, many of them homeless. The state has always paid for the $188 million pro- gram, but, with the passage of national health-care reform, Disability Lifeline became eligible for matching Medicaid dollars that the Legislature planned to use to fund the program at the end of the current biennium, from January to June 2011.
To get the funding, the state needs what's called a Medicaid waiver, which it has applied for but still doesn't have, Kavoussi says. In the meantime, says DSHS spokesperson Jim Stevenson, the cuts that Porter listed at the meeting are not final. They are "items under discussion," he says in an e-mail, "not decisions."
Kavoussi doesn't think so. "It's pretty bleak," she says of the cuts. More than 1,500 people were already dropped from Disability Lifeline on Sept. 1 due to a two-year limit that legislators imposed this year, but "these are people who struggled to find stable work when the economy was good," Kavoussi says, "and they have virtually nothing."