Friday, October 30, 2009

Senior Citizens Conference Raises Health Care, Taxes and I-1033 Debates - Senator Rodney Tom Says He Would Vote For a Tax Increase

Above: Governor Christine Gregoire addresses the day-long Senior Citizens Foundation Conference in Seattle on Friday.

by Janine Gates

Passions and tensions ran higher and higher as the day worn on at the Senior Citizens Foundation 2009 Annual Fall Conference held in Seattle on Friday.

Health care dominated the discussions as the interconnectedness of senior issues, the national health care bills, the potential impact of Tim Eyman’s I-1033 on Washington State, the pending state revenue forecast and talk of various revenue raising options hit home.

The Washington State 2010 Legislative Session will be grim as the state faces a $2 billion shortfall, and there is a temptation to eliminate state-only funded services such as the Senior Citizen’s Services Act and the Family Caregiver Support Program. Debate ensued on all aspects of revenue and expenditures and there was even mention of a possible state income tax.

Governor Christine Gregoire welcomed 400 health care and senior advocates and agency staff to the conference and when the topic soon turned to health care, reminded the audience that even she, as a recent breast cancer survivor, could be excluded from future health care coverage because of her now “pre-existing condition” even though, she says, “she’s as healthy as a horse.”

Above: The Washington State Council on Aging named Margaret Casey, lobbyist for the Seattle-King County Aging and Disability Services, as a recipient of the 2009Excellence in Action Award for her work and service to senior citizens. Governor Gregoire presented her with her award on Firday.

Washington State Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler also addressed the group saying, “It is critical that we see Congress act on health care before they recess. If we fail, we’re putting it off for another decade.” This prediction was agreed upon by many health care area experts, legislators, and advocates in the room throughout the day.

One in five Washingtonians do not have health care insurance, equaling one million residents, “but that number doesn’t tell the whole story,” said Kreidler. One out of four don’t have enough money for full coverage and choose between paying their mortgage or coverage. The number one reason people go into personal bankruptcy, Kriedler said, is because of health care costs.

“The ones who are most impacted are those 19 to 64 (years of age). They are working, they are contributing, but they’re the one’s getting shafted the worst. They are supporting us - the rest of the population….We’re in a position right now to bridge the generations….We need change - we need universal coverage. The system is failing and the opportunity is now. There’s a lot of agreement out there that doesn’t make the news…I believe we’re going to have transformational health care reform,” said Kreidler.

Kreidler said he is putting together a commission called, “Let’s Make It Real,” a coalition of 15-20 doctors, advocates, local elected officials and administrators to present recommendations to the Governor and the Legislature about how the state can best implement health care reform. “It won’t be a ceiling, it will be a floor…” said Kreidler.

“When I go to bed at night, I think about what if we (as a country) don’t take this step toward health care reform - we’ll spend $33 trillion dollars in the next decade and look like a Third World country. We’ll be outspending our competitors two to one - that’s a recipe for disaster for the U.S. economy.” said Kreidler.

Above: Washington State Commissioner Mike Kreidler.

Denny Heck moderated two health care discussion panels, saying he too, is not immune to the health care crisis. As a former legislator and chief of staff to Governor Booth Gardner, Heck, 57, says he retired six years ago and has a well-known health care coverage carrier, but has seen his rates go up from $700 a month to $1500 a month for his family of three. “And it’s not a high end plan. Now you know why I’m looking forward to Medicare,” Heck joked.

National HealthCare Debate

There was considerable discussion about the two bills now facing the U.S. Congress in the House and Senate. The House released its consolidated bill today and could be voted on next week. The Senate version is expected to be released soon. And when could a final bill be forwarded to the White House? “If we’re lucky, it will be a Christmas present,” said panelist Lee Goldberg, Policy Director for the Long Term Care Division at Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

“Is this really going to happen?” asked Heck.

“If I had a farm, I’d bet the farm that this is going to happen,” said Goldberg.

“With all due respect to Kreidler and the Governor, they are way too optimistic but we’re on the right path…this is the first of a series of efforts and luckily our commander in chief is still a community organizer,” said panelist Aaron Katz, University of Washington lecturer, Department of Health Service.

Ingrid McDonald, Advocacy Director for the AARP Washington, said that there was a delay in the progress of the conversation because "here has been a tremendous amount of fear-mongering to scare seniors - there is nothing in these bills that will cut Medicare benefits,” McDonald assured.

“Anytime you hear ‘The Medicare sky is falling,’ consider the source,” agreed Goldberg. “No matter what, states are going to be the big winners in this health care reform because it will pump money into state programs.”

Representative Sherri Appleton, D-23 District, said she is a big supporter of universal health care and detailed amendments Senator Maria Cantwell dropped into the Senate bill.

Aaron Katz lamented that there is nothing in these bills that will actually reduce health care costs. Ingrid McDonald said cost reduction would require more federal involvement than we would want, saying “unfortunately, there is a financial incentive to over-serve.”

So what can we do? Get in touch with your representatives on a national and local level, write letters to the editor, and emphasize, if you are, a senior citizen and that you support health care reform, panelists suggested.

On the House side, Representatives Rick Larson, Brian Baird and Adam Smith are still hold-outs. “If you live in their district, you need to break their arms,” said Appleton.

“I’m sure you mean that figuratively,” clarified Heck.

“Just don’t break the arm they vote with,” joked Goldberg.

“The only way we’re going to get health care reform is if the people demand it, so get out there,” said Katz.

Washington’s I-1033, Taxes, and the 2010 Legislative Session

The conference's afternoon session got even testier as State Senator Rodney Tom, D-48th District and Vice Chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee expressed frustration with I-1033, asking the audience, “If I-1033 passes, do you want me to break the state’s obligation to K-12 or do you want me to break the initative?”

Nora Gibson, Executive Director of Elder Health NW was blunt, saying “People will die if this goes forward - if you whittle down their level of support, bad things will happen.”

“We are a humanitarian society…we need real, non-hysterical, non-finger pointing conversations with the public that says we have to have revenue. What are you willing to pay for? Do you want our most fragile population out in the ice? We have to tell it like it is,” said Senator Rosa Franklin, D-29th District.

“If I-1033 passes, “it will force a tax increase this session,” said Senator Tom.

Tom says he would vote for a tax increase. “We need to get real. We have a lot of corporate loopholes to look at.” Tom suggested that he would close the car trade-in allowance, saying “it’s a $200 million giveaway. That’s real money. The problem with that is there are car dealers in all 49 districts who will say ‘that will put us out of business’ but I don’t think it will make a difference - people will either buy a car or not.”

“If I-1033 is defeated, we are not going to fill the (state budget) hole with taxes. “There will have to be a mixture of loophole closures and sin taxes,” suggested Tom. Tom pointed out that churches and synagogues do not pay property taxes. “We need to look at these loopholes…we are making cuts we’ve never dreamed of.”

Franklin added, “These cuts (we made to the budget) were not easy…there were tears.”

“I’ve committed myself to not be part of an all-cuts budget. We’ve done all the harm we can do. We need to be compassionate. Maybe we can’t have a balanced budget. Maybe we should bond that debt,” said Representative Appleton from the back of the packed room, which caused a major stir of conversation.

“I’m brave but not stupid,” responded Tom. “We have a lot of bonds out there. We have one of the best bond ratings out there and if we change that, they will downgrade…We need to be straight with the public: this is how much government costs, and here’s the revenue…Mathematically, we have to take everything off to get to $2 billion. You are going to see some new revenue.”

“People have to take leadership, overcome fear, say the “T” word (taxes) and have a state we can be proud to live in,” Nora Gibson agreed.

When asked what will happen during session, Franklin said that the Governor will eventually say, “Bring me a bill…." Franklin added, "We have no where to go. We have no money (and) we can not have an all-cuts budget. The Governor has a heart and she will do the right thing.”

“We can’t continue to do what we’ve been doing - we have to bite the bullet and have a real conversation about our state tax situation without the rhetoric and talk show hosts,” Franklin said. This was greeted by applause from the audience. “We have to engage the community: What do you want? What are you willing to pay for, and what are you willing to delay? We have an unsustainable tax structure that does not support the services you expect,” said Franklin.

Asked by Heck to make a prediction on I-1033, Senator Tom replied, “I predict on Tuesday we’ll reject I-1033.”

“We can’t let people like Tim who feed on fear to control what happens,” concluded Nora Gibson.

A State Income Tax?

An audience member asked about a state income tax, to which Tom replied, “We are going to be forced into that conversation. The B&O tax, which is unique to Washington, is 19% of our revenue. Do we lower a business's rate or do they leave the state? They have a gun to our head every time….Microsoft came to us last year asking for a tax rebate in Quincy and we said no and they went to Texas! We’re seeing that more and more - that's what’s going to force this change.”

Another asked about the Boeing decision to take its business to South Carolina. Senator Tom quickly retorted, “I do not believe Boeing left because of the B&O…Boeing is a military contractor. That’s what this is about - this gave South Carolina taxpayers $175 million and Boeing gained two new senators in this deal - it was not about our tax structure.”

South Sound Activists

Ruth Shearer of Lacey, came to the conference as a member of the Senior Citizen’s Lobby to help with registration. “Health care - it’s so important to understand what’s going on. Shearer said one of her grandsons was born with tumors that, at age three, turned cancerous. A treatment was successful and her grandson, now 26, is healthy, but “has a pre-existing condition that will affect him forever.” Her grandson’s health affected his parent’s job choices his whole life because they needed a large enough company that has a group plan, at a high cost for very little coverage, that would cover the whole family and his pre-existing condition.

Former Senator Don Carlson lives in Olympia and is now a lobbyist for the Washington State School Retirees Association. “I have kids and grandkids. Health care is not just an old person’s problem - it’s the young person’s, too. (They) need to protect their children."

Carlson said he is helping to coordinate a health care forum series in Olympia that will be sponsored by all Olympia faith congregations. It will start January 12, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m. at First Christian Church, and run for eight sessions over a period of two months. “The House and Senate leadership, professionals and advocates will participate, encourage civil dialogue and answer people’s questions about health care,” said Carlson.

Gene Forrester, 81, of Olympia is the immediate past president of the Washington State School Retirees Association. Forrester also served on the AARP National Policy Council for eight years and says he’s most concerned about cost reduction of the health care system.

“I’m a rarity that I don’t have to take any prescription drugs but it’s currently illegal for Medicare to negotiate with drug companies for reduced prices, and that’s something I’d like to see changed in the final bill,” said Forrester.

Above: Olympian Gene Forrester is quite a guy. Besides volunteering with the Kiwanis Club's Food Bank, he just returned last week from Phoenix where he played seven games in the World Softball Tournament. His team, the Northwest 80's" came in third place.

For more information, contact the Washington State Senior Citizens Lobby at, or (360) 754-0207.

Above: Senator Rosa Franklin chats with a participant of the Senior Citizens Foundation conference on Friday.