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Healthcare in Washington facing tough times

By Mark Johnson, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs

Last week I attended the annual legislative healthcare conference with a much clearer understanding of the significant challenges facing Washington State’s health care system.

First and foremost our behavioral health system which includes mental illness and substance addiction, is a mess.  A recent court case against the State ruled that we are not holding up our end of the deal by not evaluating folks in a timely manner.  Mentally ill who are picked up by police or end up in the hospital sometimes were not receiving the evaluation and treatment they needed for weeks or months.  The lawsuit will end up costing the state millions with no easy solution in the distance.

To compound the problem, Western State Mental Hospital was de-certified by the federal government.  There simply aren’t enough professionals and beds to treat everyone.  This will be a multi-year process that the Legislature will have to address when it convenes in January.

Second, our individual market for health insurance is almost non-existent.  We have 39 counties in Washington and most have only one choice or if you’re lucky, two choices of health plans to choose from.  And the sad part is they are very expensive and they are going up rapidly in cost.  Part of the problem is that the federal Affordable Care Act penalty for not having healthcare went away and so many healthy younger folks dropped their coverage leaving a smaller pool of sicker more health care needy folks to take up what was left.  With no income tax in Washington State, there is no way to require or force people to buy health care coverage.  Our current model is unsustainable.

Two ideas that were brought up is taking all of the expensive, health intensive folks and creating a high need pool that is heavily subsidized by those buying insurance and the state.  The other out of the box thought was to get rid of employers being in the business of providing health care for their employees and make the state an entirely individual market system where everyone is responsible for their own insurance.  I’m not sure how this would work on a state level – but it is going to take some major political fortitude to bail this sinking ship out and restore some sanity to our health care system.

WRA as an employer association is keenly interested in quality, accessible and affordable health care for both owners and their employees and their families.   Stay tuned, you will be hearing more about this important topic in the months and years to come.

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