Making Sacrifices

By Kellyn Brown

It’s much easier for those of us with jobs to demand that budgets be cut, spending reduced and pork exorcized than it is for us to think about the people who will lose their jobs when that happens. It’s only partly about unions, which is synonymous with a swear word around many dinner tables.

In the Flathead, funding for both the Flathead Community Health Center and Columbia Falls Veterans’ Home is in limbo. It’s only partly about the stimulus, another sore subject. No, the primary reason that these agencies may see their respective budget cuts is because federal and state lawmakers say all the money is gone and the country must make sacrifices.

It’s true that budgets are overextended. But it’s also true that how elected officials decide what lands on the cutting room floor is often devil-may-care at best. A little off the top here, a little off the sides there, and, voila, a budget-saving haircut to fulfill campaign promises.

The Columbia Falls Veterans’ Home, which is the only state-run facility of its kind in Montana, is poised to get its funding slashed because it spends too much money taking care of veterans. House Republicans compared expenses at the home to those at a veterans’ home in Glendive, which is run by a private company, and found an extraordinarily large difference.

The numbers really are telling. The 105-bed Columbia Falls – which has a five-star rating, the highest possible, from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid ¬– budget is $9.9 million, while Glendive’s is just $1.7 million. That discrepancy was enough that Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, introduced a bill to privatize, saying, “it just looks so far out of line that that’s why we have to look at it.”

The Columbia Falls Veterans’ Home already expected to lay off some of its staff because of proposed budget cuts. Now it will just have to lay off a bunch more if it goes private.

At Kalispell’s Flathead Community Health Center, which opened just two years ago, employees are keeping a closer eye on Washington, D.C. than Helena. It’s there, at the U.S. capitol, where its fate lies. You see, the health center, which was provided a two-year operating grant with money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, may also lose its funding.

Congressman Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. makes the point that the “stimulus bill was not intended for ongoing expenses” – and it’s a good one, that’s not what the bill was intended for at all. But Wendy Doely, executive director of the Flathead Community Health Center, counters in a letter she recently sent to the Beacon that continuing funding was originally included in the Affordable Health Care Act. Either way, the money will be gone under the plan the U.S. House passed.

Budgets can’t remain solvent unless hard decisions are made. And voters demanded lawmakers make them in the last election. So perhaps it’s selfish to highlight these two organizations when so many others will be affected in this new era of tough love (of course, these costs are miniscule when put into context of both budgets, but are easier to address than, say, Social Security.)

What’s on the line are 17 jobs at the health clinic and an untold number at the veterans’ home, which employs about 140. Those that lose their positions will face the worst job market in Montana, and perhaps the region. Flathead County’s unemployment rate is 12.1 percent and has been rising since October. Many of the newly jobless will have to look elsewhere for work. Ironically, the clinic serves many of those already down on their luck – some 60 percent of its patients have no health insurance at all.

Still, money will be saved if the state privatizes and replaces the public employees at Columbia Falls Veterans’ Home. And stimulus funding cannot be continued or it would bankrupt the federal government. But living and working in the Flathead, it’s easy to be selfish and ask for money for both.

Too bad, it’s even easier not to think about it at all.