WALLA WALLA — Immigration policy, health care costs and across-the-board spending cuts through the federal government’s sequestration initiative dominated a round table discussion between business operators and U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers this morning.
About 30 business people packed into the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce’s conference room for an 8 a.m. meeting with the fifth-term state representative.
McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, opened the meeting with a message of optimism that Congress will be able to put together a bipartisan immigration bill, a five-year farm bill and a balanced budget.
“Now it’s time to get to work again. We had a more robust November and December in D.C.,” she opened. “There comes a new optimism with the new year.”
A celebration of McMorris Rodgers’ work to land Walla Walla a $250,000 federal air service grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation was cut short by concerns about the economy and where recovery is headed.
The pending sequestration, which includes a 5-percent across-the-board spending cutback for government, was a common thread throughout the meeting. The spending cuts were an exchange for raising the debt ceiling and are expected to result in $1.2 trillion of cuts over 10 years, McMorris Rodgers explained. Though the impact will have effects virtually everywhere, it is the first time in her years in D.C. that the federal government would cut spending as an approach to addressing budgetary woes.
“I think there’s a better way, but I also think it’s important to address spending,” she said.
Outside the Chamber office about eight sign-toting citizens had assembled to protest McMorris Rodgers’ stances on gun regulations and the Violence Against Women Act. Messages on the signs implored her to “Close the Gun Show Loophole” that allows consumers to purchase firearms without background checks, and also to reconsider inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the Violence Against Women Act. The protest was organized by a group formed last year called “Walla Walla Progressives.”
Inside the office the greatest portion of the roughly hour-and-a-half-long meeting was spent discussing health care — from Medicare reimbursements to implementation of the Affordable Health Care Act.
The impacts of some legislation could have frighteningly real effects for some local organizations.
Walla Walla Home Medical owner Jay Buckley “put a face” on the Medicare reimbursement cuts coming down the pike March 1. He’s bracing for a 45 percent reduction in Medicare reimbursements for Home Medical patient services. Under some, he said the business could receive as little as $4.88 per claim in revenue even before the business has to pay for its space, labor or other costs.
“We have 20 folks working there,” he said. “For an average American small business, I don’t know how we survive a 45 percent cut.”
He said Medicare accounts for 53 percent of what’s billed, but only 37 percent of what is actually paid. That 37 percent is expected to drop to 18.5 percent next year, he lamented.
“It’s going to drive people out of business,” he said.
McMorris Rodgers said the government has touted a projected $17 billion in savings from Medicare — “but they don’t tell you at what cost.
“I’m very concerned about where Medicare is headed. At the same time, 10,000 people are signing up for it every day.”
The system will only become more burdened, she said.
At Blue Mountain Heart to Heart, a nonprofit dedicated to the prevention of new HIV, Hepatitis C and related infections and providing care and assistance for those affected, Executive Director Everett Maroon worries what will happen to users under the Affordable Health Care Act. Funding for many comes through the Ryan White Care Act, which will be up for reauthorization in September. If it isn’t approved, many current undocumented users will not be covered under the Affordable Health Care Act.
“If they fall out of care it’s a public health crisis for everyone,” Maroon said.
Walla Walla’s Harvest Foods owner Nolan Lockwood worries how much time business operators will have to meet the requirements of the health care initiative when the federal government hasn’t yet worked out the details of changes expected to be made in 2014.
“Is there going to be some wiggle room?” Lockwood asked. “We will all act once we know the rules. But I believe they’ve managing to postpone it so long that we’re going to be scrambling.”
McMorris Rodgers agreed with the sentiment and empathized, vowing to work toward resolutions that take business operators into consideration.
Hydroelectric power generation, Federal Housing Authority lending changes and citizenship were all topics of discussion, too.