Susan Docekal got a letter a while back stating that her monthly health care premium would go up in 2010. But it didn't prepare her for how much: 57 percent.
That's the increase the 54-year-old is facing to stay on the Basic Health Plan, a state-subsidized insurance program for the working poor. On Nov. 13, Docekal, who works at a community center in Seattle and makes less than $1,500 a month, got a notice from the state that her premium would go up from $88 a month to $138 starting in January.
Her annual out-of-pocket deductible is going up, too, from $150 to $250. Basic Health is still a good deal, she says, but she's worried about what's going to happen to thousands in the state who will lose coverage because they can't afford the increases.
She's not alone. Earlier this year, to close a two-year budget gap of $9 billion, the legislature cut $238 million from Basic Health, forcing the state Health Care Authority, which oversees the program, to raise rates and cut off coverage for about 35,000 of Basic Health's 100,000 recipients. With the state facing a deficit of $2.6 billion more next year, Gov. Chris Gregoire is expected to call for cutting part or all of Basic Health in the 2010 budget that she's due to release on Dec. 9.
A full cut would save the state $160 million. To prevent that, Seattle feminist group Radical Women has formed a coalition of anti-poverty, labor and health-care activists to lobby for saving and expanding the program in the legislative session that starts in January. The Sisters Organize for Survival Basic Health campaign kicked off Nov. 14 with a Rainier Valley "community tribunal" at which Docekal and other participants gave testimony about the high cost of health coverage and, on the other hand, the consequences of being without it.
The campaign is now circulating petitions that it plans to present in Olympia at a media event similar to one held Dec. 6, when protesters in bandages stood in front of Seattle's convention center.
"I've been lucky, I'm healthy," Docekal told a group of about 50 participants at the Rainier Valley Community Center. "I really worry about people who are on Basic Health who are not healthy because they've also increased the deductible. If you don't pay it, you get thrown off the plan."
Chris Smith said he paid $75 a month when he started on the plan eight years ago. His premium is now $237 a month. "That works out to a 216 percent rate of increase that I pay out of my pocket," he said, "and I'm still low income."
Cee Fisher, an insurance industry worker and SOS Basic Health organizer, said the governor and legislators are guilty of abandoning poor and working people.
"Politicians for both parties say that because of the economic crash, hard choices have to be made, there's not enough money," Fisher said. But, "Governor Gregoire has said she'll fund the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement and consider completely eliminating programs such as Basic Health."
"Our priorities have to change," said Rodolfo Franco, president of Local 304 of the Washington Federation of State Employees. "We need to take care [of people] not just because they're poor; it's because it affects all of our social structure. It affects the way our economy works."
Franco and others said legislators must come up with new sources of revenue to fund social programs. That, Fisher said, should include instituting a progressive income tax in Washington to stop the feast-or-famine cycles and economic unfairness of the state's sales tax system. "Because we don't have income tax, the poorest pay 17 percent of their income in taxes and the richest pay only 3 percent," Fisher said.
State Sen. Adam Kline, a Democrat who represents Rainier Valley and attended the event, introduced a bill in the last legislative session that would have created an income tax to fund education. But he told participants it would be better for them to put a statewide initiative before voters than expect legislators to pass a tax on the wealthy.
"There are folks from unions, environmental organizations and other progressive organizations talking now about whether to plan ahead so that next spring there can be an initiative [with] petitions ready to go in Olympia to put a wealthy income tax ... on the ballot," Kline said.
"Now that's counterintuitive, isn't it? Because you think, 'Oh, my god, you get the voters out [and] Tim Eyman wins. Maybe, but maybe not," he said. "Much as I'm not a big fan of the initiative process, it's very purpose is to get beyond the robber barons