If the state Senate continues to insist on eliminating Disability Lifeline in the supplemental budget, we will all soon regret this careless decision. Not only would we abandon nearly 15,000 vulnerable individuals who rely on this program for their stability and survival, but we’d guarantee increased future costs for our communities. 

Completely eliminating the program may seem like a money-saving decision, but the long-term consequences would be disastrous. 

As the behavioral health manager at Neighborcare Health, a community health center in Seattle, I’ve seen first-hand how this program has improved the lives of a very medically complex population. 

 

Greater health savings

A high proportion of those served by Disability Lifeline suffer from chronic physical-, mental- and/or substance-abuse conditions, which make them expensive users of hospital services — both inpatient and through the emergency room. 

With the goal of improving outcomes for patients and reducing costs, a pilot program was launched in 2007. Disability Lifeline was converted to an integrated model of care — one that addresses both mental and physical health needs. 

The pilot was initially rolled out in Pierce and King counties, including Neighborcare Health. A study conducted by Washington State University, University of Washington and Harborview Medical Center compared outcomes and costs of the revised program to other counties still using the traditional fee-for-service program without the added mental health services. 

The results were significant. The study found that coordinating care to meet multiple needs of patients improved outcomes and achieved savings. It saw lower rates of arrests, homelessness, hospital admissions and inpatient psychiatric costs, relieving pressure on other community services. 

Based on these encouraging results, the state expanded the reforms statewide, which then resulted in $11.2 million in savings by reducing hospital use by Disability Lifeline enrollees. Over the next several years, if the program actually continues to exist, the state should expect to reap even greater savings. 

 

Stories of compassion

The perception by some that these programs are supporting those who don’t want to work and just want to live off the state is absolutely false. Disability Lifeline has helped thousands of people become productive members of our community through education and training. 

Just recently, I heard a story about a young man in his 30s who was a skilled backhoe operator and was uninsured. He developed ulcerative colitis and couldn’t work. If it weren’t for Disability Lifeline, he would have probably gone bankrupt from medical bills and no income. He could easily have lost his home, and his family of five would have been homeless. 

Fortunately, he was eligible for assistance. He got the medical attention he needed and was back on the job in eight months. At Neighborcare Health, we hear these stories regularly about the difference this program makes in people’s lives.

Ending this program won’t erase patients’ needs, nor will it wipe away the costs associated with their care. In fact, costs will likely grow and shift to the hospitals that will provide for them when they have nowhere else to turn. Hospitals will have no choice but to pass on those costs to paying and insured patients.  

We need to continue to support these people in our community by including this program in the final state budget. 

Disability Lifeline saves the state dollars. Preserving it is the responsible and compassionate choice to make. 

DEBRA MORRISON is the behavioral health manager at Neighborcare Health, a Seattle-based community health center that has 17 medical, dental and school-based sites.