CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) - Gov. Jim Gibbons' proposal to save about $1 million by closing the state Consumer Health Assistance Office was challenged Monday by lawmakers who noted the office has saved Nevadans $30 million in health care expenses since it opened in 2000.
The office, which fielded nearly 1,000 calls in January alone, helps people find low-cost health care and prescription drugs, assists those who lose their health insurance and can't afford COBRA insurance, and helps others work through disputes with their insurers and Medicaid.
"This is an invaluable contribution," said Assemblyman Joe Hogan, D-Las Vegas. "I just think we're cutting in the wrong place and we're eliminating an extraordinarily effective agency that solves a very widespread problem for people trying to get relief in health care areas."
The office, headed by Valerie Rosalin, was proposed by Assembly
Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, in 1999. Before the office was opened, Buckley said she "spent every lunch hour getting operations approved" for constituents, including a woman with breast cancer who needed a double mastectomy but was denied coverage by her HMO.
Buckley said she helped the woman win approval for the operation, and decided there should be a dedicated office to fill that role.
"I haven't been prouder of an agency that was created than this one," Buckley said. "Valerie and her staff run a lean, mean operation. And you can see from her cost savings, the millions of dollars that have been saved, they have more than proven their worth."
"We have to look this session at everything we can save, everything we can reform, to decide what makes sense, and eliminating this office to me would cost more in the long run."
Rosalin said she didn't know that her office funding was to be
eliminated until the governor's State of the State address in mid-January. She added that she knows of no other agency that will take up the office's responsibilities.
State Budget Director Andrew Clinger said that when faced with a $2.4 billion shortfall, the governor had to make difficult decisions and decided to focus on saving core services.
"I think there is no doubt in this case that there is going to be a loss in service by cutting this office," Clinger said. "There are certain things this office does that we will not be able to perform."
After the hearing, Rosalin said that the need for the agency is growing. In 2008, the office received 8,000 calls and opened 4,000 cases. Rosalin added that as a result of the economic downturn, the office has experienced caseload growth of 14 percent in 2007, and 20 percent in 2008. Recently, the office has helped people facing home loan foreclosures because of their inability to pay medical bills.
"We have testimony of people who have told us that without us, they would be dead," Rosalin said after the meeting. "In these economic times, there is nobody to help you. We're that anchor. We're that safety net that will give people the hope to move on."
Questions about the governor's plan to close the office were raised during an Assembly Ways and Means Committee hearing and at a later Assembly Health and Human Services Committee hearing.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)