COMMENTARY: Medicaid assistance for drugs critical part of our health care

For every one of us fortunate enough to have the security of employment and good medical insurance, there are too many who do not. It’s a sad fact that the most vulnerable — the sickest and the poorest – are hit hardest at times like these. State officials are considering future funding for medications needed by Medicaid-eligible individuals who work and lead productive lives despite their illness.

As an organization that provides treatment, housing and vocational assistance for people challenged by mental illness and substance abuse, Sound Mental Health helps people cope with hard facts like these every day.  The people who pay the most in hard times are those least able to afford it. That’s one reason why cuts in Medicaid are the wrong answer to the question of how to deal with our budget issues.

The people calling for cuts in Medicaid make their argument based on simple economics. But those cuts, while intended to save the state money, will likely have  the opposite effect. How can cuts in Medicaid cost us more? To understand this, one has to look at the big picture.

At organizations like Sound Mental Health, clients struggle with mental illness, domestic violence, addiction and many other issues.  But those issues are just part of a bigger problem. Assistance in obtaining medication, jobs and housing is also crucial to a successful and sustained recovery. If any one of these essential elements is eliminated, the individual is very unlikely to make it in the community.  It’s like asking a four-legged chair to stand on three legs.

The same principle applies to Medicaid drug coverage. It’s a critical leg in our overall public health system. If Medicaid funding for medications is eliminated, a large number of those disabled individuals on Medicaid will inevitably end up in an institution. The costs of supporting people with serious illnesses without medicine do not disappear; they just emerge somewhere else in the care system, such as emergency room visits, hospitalizations and long-term care. And these other types of treatment are not only preventable with proper medication; they also cost taxpayers a lot more.

It’s not just about people struggling with substance abuse and mental illness. Medicaid cuts hurt children, the disabled and people whose unemployment benefits have simply run out. These are people who are already down on their luck. And then they get sick.

With the right medication and treatment, these people can recover. And many can get an education or a job.  That’s good for them and it helps our economy. There is an economic argument to be made in the debate on Medicaid and it’s an argument for keeping essential Medicaid services funded.

Medicaid prescription drug benefits are a critical part of overall public health care. Without these benefits, other parts of the system will be left to take up the slack. As a result, the overall effectiveness of the system goes down while costs go up. Medicaid cuts are as bad for our state’s economic health as they are for our public health.

We must fight to do the right thing for the economy and the people of Washington state. Contact the offices of Gov. Gregoire and your state legislators. Let them know that while cutting costs in a tough economy may seem like an easy answer, it’s not always the right one. Let them know that we can’t afford to cut Medicaid drug benefits. By funding Medicaid drug coverage, we are helping people in Washington stay healthy and productive. That’s the best prescription for our economy.

To contact your state senator, representatives and Gov. Gregoire, call the Washington State Legislative Hotline at 1-800-562-6000.