Colorado’s looming budget cuts threaten more than schools and state jobs – they also could put lives at stake.
Largressa Munnerlyn wants lawmakers to know that. She survived breast cancer, thanks to a state screening program now under threat from budget cuts.
“I’m living proof that we need this program,” Munnerlyn said of Colorado’s Women’s Wellness Connection, which estimates it will cut breast and cervical cancer screenings for 5,100 women next year under a 41 percent budget cut pending in the state Senate. The program provided 9,152 screenings in the last year, down from 16,809 in the 2009-10 fiscal year.
Munnerlyn lost her job, and her health insurance, when the recession cranked up in 2009. She learned she had breast cancer after a cancer screening at a state “mammovan” at a neighborhood health clinic.
A Denver woman in her 50s, Munnerlyn subsequently relied on state assistance for a lumpectomy, radiation and chemotherapy. Fearing other women won’t be so lucky, she joined other cancer survivors outside the Capitol last week to plead with lawmakers to save the program.
“Losing your job and your health insurance shouldn’t cost you your life,” Munnerlyn said.
Despite sympathy from lawmakers, the prognosis for health care in next year’s budget is poor.
Lawmakers struggling to close a half-billion-dollar shortfall are poised to ax an array of health services, from cancer screenings to tobacco cessation programs to payments for doctors who treat the poor. Lawmakers insist their top priorities are public education and reviving the economy and that they have no choice but to trim health care across the board.
“These are all hard cuts that impact real people all across the state. And I don’t see them being reversed any time soon because of the long-term fiscal outlook,” said Rep. Mark Ferrandino, a top budget-writer for the Democrats.
The cuts include shifting $33 million from cancer prevention and smoking cessation programs to fund Medicaid. By law, the money, collected from tobacco taxes and tobacco settlement funds, must be used for health care. But advocates complain that the shift allows lawmakers to siphon Medicaid money to non-health-related items in the rest of the $7 billion general fund.
Republican Rep. Cheri Gerou said the cancer screenings covered with tobacco taxes will still be done, only under Medicaid instead of the previous program.
“It’s being used in Medicaid for the exact same purposes,” Gerou said.
Next year’s budget charges some poor people more for health assistance, and pays doctors less for treating them.
Lawmakers are considering new monthly premiums of between $20 and $50 for some low-income parents using a Colorado health insurance program for children – an effort to raise some $6 million by 2013. Those insurance recipients now face nominal annual payments, not monthly premiums. The Colorado chapter of the American Society of Pediatrics opposes the change, saying the premiums threaten to put some needy children out of the program.
Medicaid is under siege, too. Next year, Colorado is projected to have some 613,000 people on Medicaid, about half of them children. That’s up from about 559,000 this year, a growth attributed to eligibility expansion and an economic downturn in which falling incomes mean more people qualify.
Lawmakers plan to again trim what doctors are reimbursed for treating Medicaid patients. The spending plan also trims Medicaid payments for certain radiology treatments, inpatient renal dialysis and other services.
Some prominent health care advocacy groups seem resigned to the cuts.
Dede de Percin, executive director of the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, said lawmakers have the impossible job of preserving schools, health care and roads when there isn’t enough money for it all.
“There’s a face behind every cut,” said de Percin.
Some lawmakers say the state needs to study how it spends tobacco money.
Republican Rep. Cindy Acree wants an audit of tobacco taxes and tobacco settlement money. She says the money is used in a roundabout way to cover non-health expenses such as schools or roads.
“We need to stand up and know what this money is being used for,” Acree said.
The audit could come next summer. No matter its conclusion, advocates fear health care will keep coming up short in the Colorado budget.
“It’s a scary time. They’re just cutting money from everywhere,” said Tina Jagerson, a Denver woman who attended the rally to save cancer screenings. Jagerson’s father died of colon cancer.
“We just have to keep trying to get our voice heard, too,” Jagerson said.