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Monday, March 2, 2009

In these difficult economic times, the General Assistance-Unemployable (GA-U) program is under threat of elimination, when it is needed more than ever. Many people who receive help through GA-U were previously employed until their lives were changed by an accident or illness. It benefits everyone in the state to know that assistance is available if the same were to happen to them or someone they loved.

Leading lawmakers have insisted that Washington State is unique in providing these state-funded benefits and therefore, we can not afford the luxury of continuing the program.

They are wrong on two counts.

First, Washington is not alone in providing general assistance to disabled adults. Our analysis of national data shows that 31 states in the nation provide similar financial and medical assistance. Benefits differ among states and some provide assistance in certain counties only, but the notion that Washington stands alone in helping disabled adults is simply not true.

But what if it were? It used to be that Washington State took pride in its innovative approaches to health care and social services. We stood out as a leader on health care reform years before the nation began addressing the issue of uninsured adults and children. We continued to make strides in this arena when the Legislature passed a bill in 2007 with the impressive goal of ensuring that all children in the state have health insurance by 2010. These are the kinds of public investments that Washingtonians take pride in.

Second, the general assistance program plays a vital role in supporting the economic security and health of Washingtonians. Contrary to some opinions, not all recipients of GA-U will qualify for federal Supplemental Social Insurance (SSI). A 2006 Department of Social and Human Services report found that half of GA-U clients transitioned to SSI between 2003 and 2004. It is not adequate to assume that the federal system will absorb the needs of this population if we dismantle the state program. In addition, there is a significant backlog of applications to the SSI program that renders wait times of up to two years. If there are no state general assistance benefits available, the costs of which are eventually reimbursed to the state, low income people who have very serious health problems will likely deteriorate.

Cutting GA-U out of the state budget will not ultimately save costs to the state. It will simply divert costs to other parts of the budget that cover such areas as emergency rooms visits and public safety. A smarter approach would be to streamline our investments in the program. Our in-depth analysis of GA-U found that the state is likely to save money by providing comprehensive mental health and substance abuse treatment to GA-U clients. The state should also consider a managed care or “medical home” model of health care for everyone in the program and better screening of clients who may qualify for veteran’s benefits.

Clearly the economic crisis at hand is very serious and will require thoughtful consideration of all our options. State leaders should urge Congress to support President Obama’s plan (contained in his budget proposal) to to speed up federal administration of SSI claims, which will help move eligible Washingtonians into permanent disability benefits. But not all GA-U clients will be able to make that transition and the results would be harmful to them and costly to the state. Maintaining the GA-U program aligns us with the majority of states in the country.

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