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Friday, February 27, 2009

Today we continue our four-part series on the important role of public investments in our state. The series is based on the Progress Index, a framework for analyzing the state budget that was developed by the Budget & Policy Center. The Progress Index utilizes four commonly-held values: education and opportunity, thriving communities, healthy people and environment, and economic security. Last week, I wrote about thriving communities.

Good health ensures that people can take advantage of the social, economic, and civic life in their community. Likewise, a healthy environment allows people to enjoy food, water, and outdoor recreation without fear of pollution or toxins.

The challenges of achieving good health for all are increasing. As unemployment rates rise, so do the numbers of people without adequate health insurance. And even people who do have insurance can find the costs of health care to be more than they can afford. In addition, pollution in the environment threatens to overwhelm the health and safety of our air, water, land, and wildlife.

Public efforts can make a difference towards improving health and the environment in Washington State. The Budget & Policy Center has identified four research-based goals to help us focus our efforts in this area. They are:

- Protect Public and Environmental Health
- Support Families and Protect Children
- Expand Health Insurance Coverage
- Care of People with Long-Term Health Needs

Most of the state's investment in healthy people and environment goes toward expanding health insurance, caring for people with long-term health needs, and protecting children and the environment. (See graph)

As health care costs have risen over recent decades, Washington has made significant efforts to provide health care coverage to people without private insurance. The state's Basic Health program is designed to fill the gap between public medical assistance and private insurance for lower income workers. Established in 1988, it was the first program of its kind in the nation. In 2007, state policymakers set a goal to provide health insurance to every child in the state by 2010, by passing the Cover All Kids legislation. These are investments that all Washingtonians can be proud of.

The current economic crisis facing our state poses a serious threat to our efforts to expand access to high quality health care. Not only are insurance benefits at risk, but also the availability of providers. Community Health Centers are a key component of the state health care infrastructure. They provide comprehensive health services to patients with or without health insurance. In 2008, one-third of the patients served by community health centers was uninsured. Cuts in public health insurance programs have a direct effect on community health centers, which are already strained because of economic and health care trends.

During these tough economic times, it is easy to forget the important role that state government can play in improving the quality of life for everyone. But these investments do matter. For example, the preservation and maintenance of the Cedar River Watershed has been a remarkable achievement in sustainable use of environmental resources. The watershed includes over 90,000 acres of protected forestland and is only one of six water sources in the country that does not need fabricated filtration. It provides two-thirds of King County's water supply and is also used for important environmental research.

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