OLYMPIA - For the next two months, Lower Valley legislators Dan Newhouse and Bruce Chandler are going to have their hands full. The two Republican state representatives joined their cohorts in Olympia today for the 2004 session.
This year's gathering in Olympia for the state's elected officials will be a short 60-day session. Both men say much work must be crammed into the short period of time.
Besides trying to thwart the attempts of Gov. Gary Locke to siphon money from the state's reserve funds, Newhouse and Chandler say legislators' plates will be filled this year with several issues that need to be addressed immediately.
One of those issues is reforming the state's medical malpractice guidelines. Both Sunnyside area legislators say the current costs of malpractice insurance, in terms of both premiums and settlements, are bankrupting the medical profession and driving physicians out of the state.
"It's at a point of total meltdown," said Newhouse, presently serving his first term in the House of Representatives.
"We're losing doctors, especially in our smaller communities.
"Right now there are 21 doctors in Yakima County who can't get malpractice insurance. It's either too expensive or it's not offered," he said.
Newhouse and Chandler explain that one of the reasons the premiums for medical malpractice insurance are not affordable is because claims are so high. The two political allies say caps must be implemented on all medical malpractice claims.
"One of the ideas being talked about is assigning an amount of responsibility," said Chandler.
In essence, that means setting a percentage or a ceiling on the amount of money a claimant could collect. Newhouse and Chandler are quick to point out that advocates of this idea aren't trying to limit the insurance payout to people who successfully file claims for such things as actual medical bills and time lost from work.
"What we're talking about is a pain and suffering cap," said Newhouse, explaining that instead of millions of dollars being awarded by courtroom juries, a more sensible ceiling for such settlements might fall in the $250,000 range.
Newhouse is a sitting member of the House judiciary committee, which ensures that at the very least the topic of medical malpractice reform will be addressed this session.
Also apt to be tossed around in legislative chambers this session, say Newhouse and Chandler, is the issue of health care costs.
"We've had double-digit growth in health care costs for several years," said Chandler. "Health care costs are affecting everyone...business, you and me, state government."
Changes that are needed, say the two legislators, include Medicaid reimbursement rate adjustments, redefining small group insurance rates and having more flexibility in insurance coverages.
Reforming the way the state adjudicates water rights is bound to come up in discussions in Olympia this session, too. The two men said the state's "use it or lose it" measure needs to be changed so that farmers and ranchers aren't penalized for not using irrigation water.
"After all, if you don't need irrigation water one season and you leave water in the stream, it's benefiting fish," said Chandler.
Under current state law, those holding water rights must give up their water to the state if they haven't utilized their rights for five successive years.
Reform to the state's Department of Labor and Industries division is also badly needed, say both Chandler and Newhouse.
"We need to look at how the L&I trust fund is managed," said Chandler. "And, L&I has to do a better job at getting people back to work.
"Accountability is needed-both in minimizing fraud and in doing a better job of getting people's claims approved in a more timely manner," he added.
Newhouse and Chandler said they are also unhappy with the news that Locke, who is giving up his seat as governor this fall, has indicated that his supplemental budget will draw down the surplus funds that have been stored away by legislators.
"Locke is abandoning the (budgetary) principles that were established last year," said Newhouse.
He and Chandler went on to explain that Locke is proposing to expand on the state's existing programs, in areas such as increasing the enrollment counts at state universities.
"If we deplete our reserves and abandon our budget approach, it will make for more difficult times," said Chandler. "What's being proposed in this supplemental budget will amount to a $1 billion deficit."
Both men say now is not the time to put Washington state into further economic peril. They said the sound financial principles that were adhered to in last year's legislative session need to be continued this session, in hopes that the state's economic climate continues to rebound.
. Bob Story,can be contacted at
(509) 837-4500, or e-mail him