At the beginning of the 2011 legislative session, Idaho Governor Butch Otter expressed his determination to attack the “Tyranny of Entitlement.” What does that mean, and what has he done?
It would seem that the Governor thinks folks should be able to stand on their own feet. To achieve that goal, they need the tools to be self-sufficient. How to proceed? Steps forward would include strong support for education – early childhood, K-12, and higher education. Look for ways to help young people gain access to higher education without accumulating massive debt from student loans. Look for ways to replace low-paying jobs with living-wage career opportunities. Look for ways to support and strengthen Idaho individuals and families. Help people move from welfare to work.
But instead, our Governor’s action amounts to an attack on Idaho’s most vulnerable citizens – folks dealing with mental and physical disabilities and those in extreme poverty. The guidelines of the 2011 House Bill 260, supported by Governor Otter and the majority of Idaho Legislators, brought about the following directives from the Department of Health and Welfare: Beginning July 21, adults on Medicaid will only be covered for emergency dental needs. (Except for people with chronic disease such as diabetes.) Similarly, adults will not receive coverage for routine vision care, corrective lenses, or hearing aids. Many other cuts impose hardships upon a population already facing enormous challenges.
Our Governor claims these changes and others are working superbly. We are the envy of other states, he claims. The question must be asked: For whom are these changes working so well? I have surveyed clients extensively who receive these services, and they don’t share the Governor’s euphoria. Many cannot afford treatment they need. Some feel isolated because they cannot afford glasses or hearing aids. Appropriate therapy is not available for individuals with physical or mental disabilities. Individuals fear they will lose the independence they strive to achieve. In addition, service providers find their ability to care for clients limited, as they deal with new regulations and fees. Many donate hours of service. Some have lost their jobs or gone out of business.
These cuts in service will be costly in the long run. When one does not receive treatment in a timely manner, health problems and costs escalate. Those with mental illnesses must have support for their needs or there will be dire consequences. More people will land in institutions – an option much more expensive than helping them stay in their homes and communities. There will be greater burdens on our emergency rooms, correction system, and county indigent funds. There is the threat of greater numbers of suicides and more domestic violence.
We have the resources to restore vital support cut through House Bill 260. By the end of 2010, Idaho reported $85 million in revenue that was not budgeted. Governor Otter wants to use $15 million of that to increase the Grocery Tax Credit by $10 per year for everybody, regardless of income. For now, it would be more responsible to use that $15 million to address Medicaid needs. It could potentially be used to obtain $35 million in federal matching funds, for a total of $50 million. Our priority at this time should appropriately be to direct our resources where there is the greatest need. I have the audacity to believe that, even in these challenging times, Idahoans are compassionate and would use available resources to minimize human suffering. We must give people who have extraordinary challenges the opportunity to retain their dignity and gain independence.
Governor Otter speaks derisively about “Obamacare.” (More appropriately, the National Health Care Act.) Under this program, beginning in 2014 low-income adults will qualify for Medicaid coverage with the federal government picking up much of the cost. It will be tragic if struggling Idahoans have to live with House Bill 260 and the tyranny of “Ottercare” until we get that relief.