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Use ‘healthplanfinder’ for affordable health care

August 22nd, 2013|

Dear Neighbors,

In the coming days, you’ll start to hear a lot about the new state “health care exchange” that will enable Washingtonians without health care insurance to purchase affordable plans. Here in Washington, the exchange is called “healthplanfinder” and you can find it at www.wahealthplanfinder.org.

The healthplanfinder will make it easy for any Washington citizen who needs health insurance, and is not covered by an employer’s health plan or other insurance, to shop for affordable coverage. Employees who currently pay for expensive health plans through their employers may also use the healthplanfinder to find a more affordable plan. All plans available through the healthplanfinder have been approved by the state insurance commissioner to ensure that they provide high quality and good value and meet all legal requirements. In addition, many people will qualify for subsidies to help offset the cost.

Enrollment through the healthplanfinder opens on Oct. 1, but you don’t have to wait until then to learn more about your options. You can sign up for alerts and updates at www.wahealthplanfinder.org and I will issue regular updates through my Twitter account, @KarenKeiser1, and through the Senate Democratic Caucus’ Twitter account, @WASenDemocrats, which you can sign up for by clicking the Twitter button on my homepage.

In the meantime, here are some answers to commonly asked questions.

Q: Who can purchase health care through the healthplanfinder?

A: Citizens and immigrants legally present in Washington who need health insurance, and are not covered by an employer’s health plan or other health insurance, can shop for affordable health coverage through the healthplanfinder. The healthplanfinder enables people to shop for health coverage and costs in an apples-to-apples comparison. Most folks will likely qualify for premium tax credits to help pay for the insurance premiums.

Q: When can you enroll in plans under Washington’s healthplanfinder?

A: Open enrollment for plans will begin on Oct. 1 of this year. You can visit the website now to start planning your costs. Go to www.wahealthplanfinder.org for a start.

Q: When will coverage begin?

A: Coverage will begin on Jan. 1, 2014.

Q: Who will benefit from shopping through the healthplanfinder?

A: The healthplanfinder is designed for people who buy their own insurance or are currently without insurance. This includes people who work part-time and don’t qualify for benefits through their employers, or who don’t have health coverage offered from an employer, those who are self-employed, and those who have retired early and don’t yet qualify for Medicare. Individuals and families will be able to choose and compare a number of comprehensive insurance plans.

Q: I get my health insurance through the military Tricare system. What’s going to change for me because of the healthcare law?

A: Nothing. The healthcare law sets requirements for minimum coverage that satisfy the requirements for having insurance. Existing programs like Tricare, Medicare, Medicaid, VA benefits, COBRA benefits or your current employer-provided health plan all satisfy the requirements for coverage.

Q: Who qualifies for help to buy insurance?

A: People with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level (a family of four with an income of $94,200, for instance) will qualify for help. The tax credits are based on a sliding scale, so those who make lower incomes receive a higher credit. The credit applies immediately when you purchase insurance – you don’t have to wait until you file your taxes. The credit is designed to make health insurance affordable for most people.

Q: I don’t think I am going to qualify for help with my premium, but I also can’t afford to buy insurance. What penalty will I face if I choose not to buy coverage?

A: The law does not require you to purchase health insurance if the premium would exceed 8 percent of your income. But you should explore your options. As of Jan. 1, 2014, Medicaid coverage will expand to citizens who earn up to about $34,000 for a family of four, or about $15,000 for an individual. It will cover most people earning minimum or near-minimum wages. Medicaid has no premiums or co-payments and provides comprehensive care.

Q: I own a small business, with just a few employees; what will I have to do?

A: Nothing. If you don’t provide health insurance now, and you have fewer than 50 full-time employees, nothing needs to change. But your employees will become eligible to purchase individual health care at the Washington healthplanfinder (www.wahealthplanfinder.org), and they will probably receive premium assistance to help cover the cost of the premium.

Q: My premium right now through my employer is very expensive, and I am hoping that I can find a better deal through the healthplanfinder. Will I be able to purchase coverage through the healthplanfinder?

A: If your current premium costs more than 9.5 percent of your household income, you will be able to purchase insurance at www.wahealthplanfinder.org and you will likely qualify for a premium tax credit. If your employer plan is very skimpy and only pays about 60 percent of the cost, you may also qualify for help through the www.wahealthplanfinder.org. Check it out when enrollment opens this October.

Q: I heard that benefits will be cut for Medicare under ObamaCare; is that true?

A: No, that is false. Unfortunately, some opponents of the Affordable Care Act, commonly called ObamaCare, have gone out of their way to distort the facts and try to frighten people about changes in health care coverage and costs. All indications are that costs will be lower, and benefits will be broader. For example, co-pays for more than 60 preventative screenings, tests and immunizations are eliminated under ObamaCare. All the plans must cover 10 essential benefits, including prescription drug coverage. Most “cut rate” plans have few benefits fully covered. ObamaCare plans are comprehensive, and you choose the premiums and co-pays that fit your budget.

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Keiser stands up for Medicaid expansion

June 28th, 2013|

Sen. Karen Keiser took the Senate floor today to speak against efforts by the Republican majority  to prohibit expansion of Medicaid to 300,000 Washingtonians without health care.

Rhetoric vs. Reality: How Big is the Budget?

June 17th, 2013|

Ever since the revenue shortfalls of the Great Recession began placing increased pressure on our state budgets, arguments have raged over whether the state is spending more or less on public services. Democrats cite year after year of cuts in services, while Republicans point to dollar figures that suggest the state spent more in taxes than in the year before. Who’s right?

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Depending on how you define dollars, both sides are. A recent analysis by the non-profit Economic Opportunity Institute, on whose board I serve, explains how this can be so.

In seven of the past 11 years, the state has spent more money than in the previous year — if you don’t account for inflation. For instance, as you can see in this chart compiled by the institute, the state budget was about $12 billion in 2002 compared to nearly $16 billion this year — an increase on paper of about $4 billion. But a dollar today doesn’t buy what it bought in 2002 any more than a student can attend college today for what it cost 11 years ago.

In real dollars the story is quite different: Factoring in inflation, the same chart shows that this year’s $16 billion budget is more than $2 billion smaller than the cost of government 11 years ago. In other words, in the real world as opposed to the on paper world, state spending has shrunk over the past decade.

Meanwhile the cost of prisons and other essential public safety services have continued to rise, so other state services have been reduced radically to make up the difference. For instance, state funding for the University of Washington has been cut in half since 2008 and funding for state parks has been slashed by more than 80 percent since 2009.

Another overlooked factor is our increase in population. We have more people to serve every year in our public schools, health clinics, colleges and corrections system. Every child who arrives at the school house door creates additional state spending of more than $6,000 a year.

The reduction in public services is compounded by the trends in private sector wages and benefits and other factors. For instance, this chart shows how the number of Washingtonians living in poverty or near poverty has steadily risen over the past four years. And this chart shows how private-sector firms in Washington state have been steadily providing fewer benefits–less health insurance, less paid vacation, less sick leave and less retirement security over the last decade. At the same time, this chart shows how the average cost of tuition and fees at Washington’s public colleges and universities has risen from $2,500 in 1965 to $12,500 today.

So the next time you hear someone debating whether the state spends more or less than it did in past years, there are two possible answers. On paper, it looks like more. But the real-dollar answer is less. That’s why Washingtonians in every community in our state are feeling the pinch.

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State Senator, 33th Legislative District

Keiser’s involuntary commitment bill signed into law

May 21st, 2013|

Information from family and friends soon will be considered when a licensed mental health professional and the court determine whether someone should be involuntarily committed for mental health treatment, thanks to legislation signed into law today by Gov. Jay Inslee.

"People who may need to be committed and receive treatment don’t always present symptoms when being examined and assessed; someone might exhibit none of the signs that immediate commitment is warranted,” said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, the sponsor of Senate Bill 5480. “But friends and family who see that person from day to day often see behavior and telltale signs that won’t show up in a single examination.”

Her legislation accelerates the implementation date from July 2015 to July 2014 for legislation enacted in 2010 (House Bill 3076) to expand the scope of information used by the court when determining if someone meets the criteria for involuntary civil commitment for mental health treatment.

Keiser’s bill also calls for additional local mental health services to reduce the need for hospitalization under the Involuntary Treatment Act. The state operating budget passed earlier this session by the Senate provides $14 million for additional mental health services.

The expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare is a key factor in our state’s ability to fund additional mental health services in this year’s budget, Keiser said. SB 5480 is the 13th bill passed this session that reforms our mental health system and capped a landmark year in this critical human services area, she noted.

“This has been a groundbreaking year for our ability to help those who struggle with mental health issues,” Keiser said. “Today’s bill will make sure those who need mental health treatment will receive care and also protect the public from incidents involving individuals who have not received intensive mental health service.”

Keiser’s unused prescriptions bill signed into law

May 17th, 2013|

Health care professionals and medical facilities will soon be able to donate unused, unopened prescription drugs for distribution to people without health insurance, thanks to legislation signed into law today by Gov. Jay Inslee.

"Every day, we dispose of valuable prescription drugs simply because their recipients have died or no longer need the prescriptions, and meanwhile there are people going without medication simply because they cannot afford it,” said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, the sponsor of Senate Bill 5148. “This will provide vital drugs for people who cannot afford them, provided the drugs have not been opened and are still sealed and still well within their expiration dates.”

Keiser developed the legislation after learning — while serving on the board of a local nursing home — that current law requires that unused prescription drugs must be discarded.

“Thousands of dollars of perfectly usable unopened drugs are thrown away every month now,” she said. “It is a huge waste of valuable medicines that will save thousands of dollars in prescription drug costs.”

Keiser’s legislation allows health care practitioners, pharmacists, medical facilities, drug manufacturers and drug wholesalers to donate prescription drugs and supplies to pharmacies for redistribution, under strict controls. The drugs or supplies must be inspected before dispensing and determined not to have been unsealed or otherwise adulterated or misbranded. The drugs also must bear expiration dates that are more than six months after the date of donation. The drugs may be issued to individuals who are uninsured and at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

“These drugs can improve quality of health and life for people in communities across our state,” Keiser said. “It’s not too strong to say that, in some cases, the donation of these drugs may extend life and prevent deaths. There’s no telling how many people this can help.”

The new law takes effect July 1, 2014.

Mental health: substantial policy progress accomplished this session

April 29th, 2013|

OLYMPIA — Every legislative session a myriad of bills are introduced, great debate occurs, but most policy dies for a variety of reasons. This year, mental health was the exception.

Considerable progress was accomplished on meaningful mental health policy through a bipartisan effort, led by Democrats.

“Behavioral health is just as important as physical health,” said Sen. Karen Keiser, D—Kent. “Getting our most vulnerable citizens the help they need to be well is not only in the individual’s best interest, but can also prevent unnecessary tragedy. I am grateful for the infusion of federal funding associated with Obamacare and Medicaid expansion that give the needed financial boost to help implement many of these efforts.”

Keiser began work last summer after a rash of shootings by people suffering from mental illness and in response to the gun related killing tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. The focus was also in anticipation of Medicaid expansion that will bring new funding opportunities into Washington state.

The mental health policy reform package introduced this session is one of the largest in recent memory. Many of the policies are expected to be signed into law.

Examples of substantial mental health policy include:

Implementing new standards for involuntary commitment. Senate Bill 5480 implements new standards for involuntary commitment proceedings that allow for more information from family and friends to be considered by the judge and the mental health professionals that decide whether an individual should be committed. Additional mental health services in the community will be established to limit the need for hospitalization under the Involuntary Treatment Act. The bill is funded with $14 million in the Senate budget for additional mental health services.

Troubled youth. House Bill 1336 requires school counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses to complete a training course in youth suicide screening. This incorporates Keiser’s mental health first aid bill, SB 5333.

Connecting health care professionals. SB 5456 requires a designated mental health professional (DMHP) who is evaluating a person for possible involuntary treatment to consult with the Emergency Room physician about the patient. Sometimes a patient who has come into the ER with a severe mental health episode receives medication and treatment and by the time the DMHP interviews the patient, the symptoms have been alleviated and the severity of the symptoms have been masked.

Creating a statewide behavioral health approach. SB 5732 establishes a statewide approach to mental health services. Currently, every county has a different approach in treatment standards and in some counties, jails have become de facto mental hospitals. This bill directs the state to adopt evidence-based protocols and statewide standards for treatment and creates a bottom-up task force to reform our approach to adult behavioral health. This measure is sponsored by Sen. Mike Carrell, who became ill during session. Carrell hopes to recover from his illness and lead the task force. This bill incorporates Keiser’s SB 5397 to set standards for improved outcomes for adult behavioral health services.

Mental health commitment information. SB 5282 requires the Department of Licensing to develop a proposal for the consolidation of statewide involuntary commitment data. This bill incorporates Keiser’s SB 5397 that establishes requirements for Regional Support Networks to provide historical and new involuntary commitment data to the Department of Social and Health Services.

Firearms and mental health courts. SB 5478 would have prohibited possession of firearms for defendants in mental health courts. Unfortunately, this bill died in policy committee.

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For more information: Alison Dempsey-Hall, 360.786.7887