Government can't fund everything

Feb 18 2003 12:00AM

By the Editorial Board of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

The state is in a budget crisis. Even good programs such as the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program may fall to the budget ax.

The Washington state Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program is a model of efficiency, at least when compared to the quagmire produced by many social service programs.

The program uses mostly volunteers to monitor long-term care facilities and mediate complaints - from the quality of food to the quality of care.

The program has a lean budget (again, relatively speaking) of $1.2 million for two years. It uses paid staff stationed throughout the state to coordinate 500 volunteers. The volunteer ombudsmen resolve about 4,000 complaints a year. Only about 3 percent of the cases require further investigations by the Department of Social and Health Services.

Nevertheless, Gov. Gary Locke has targeted the ombudsman program for elimination in his proposal to trim $2.4 billion from the two-year budget.

It's a shame. We would like to see the program continue.

But desperate times require desperate measures. The fact is that when $1.2 million is cut here, and $1.2 million is cut there, it adds up to real money - $2.4 billion.

We simply can't have it all.

The budget crisis is so severe that the question isn't really whether handling complaints will be handled by volunteer ombudsmen or DSHS employees, it's whether they will be heard by anybody. The answer is, sadly, only the most serious will be heard.

It might be that the lack of attention to long-term care facilities and their residents will result in a decrease in the quality of care and an increase in the number of lawsuits. Then again, maybe there will be ways to plug some of the holes with the available staff and funds.

Concerns about budget cuts are being voiced throughout state government. Education, corrections and transportation are all feeling the pinch.

The voters, through their support of initiatives that have curbed taxes, have made it clear they want government spending reduced. It's simply a matter of setting priorities, they say.

Well, the governor and the Legislature are merely trying to give the people what they wanted.

Yes, keeping the ombudsmen program afloat would be great, but it's just not high enough on the priority list.

Perhaps those most hurt by the elimination of the program, the long-term care facilities and their clients, might agree to pay a fee to keep the program going. It looks as if that's the direction government is going to have to go to keep even successful programs up and running.

In a real budget crunch - and that's what Washington is in - even good programs have to be eliminated.


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