Don’t Cut Back on Programs Vital to West Virginians

West Virginia is in the grips of a series of crises that threaten our families and communities, including an out-of-control opioid epidemic and increasing hunger. Unfortunately, rather than confronting these issues responsibly, West Virginia lawmakers, President Trump and some in Congress are proposing harsh changes to programs that give thousands of their constituents access to health care and protect them from poverty and hunger.

Locally, West Virginia legislators planned to add new and harsh work requirements to a program meant to help families get back on their feet: SNAP, also known as food stamps. This nutrition assistance helps over 357,000 West Virginians, many of whom are already working. The vast majority of those who are not employed are children, seniors, or people with disabilities or serious illnesses.

Still, legislators are putting this help at risk, despite an in-state pilot program that shows the bill would simply take away help from people who desperately need it, without increasing employment. We all can agree that helping people who can work get good-paying jobs is good for West Virginia. But, SNAP helps participants stay healthy, making it easier to get and keep a job. Taking away that help makes working harder, not easier.

To make matters worse, President Trump’s newly released budget adopts the same priorities, gutting vital programs like SNAP and Medicaid, which provides health care for nearly 540,000 West Virginians. After passing a tax cut last year that will largely benefit corporations and the wealthy, this budget reflects the president’s dangerous vision for the country — one that prioritizes the very wealthy and large corporations over everyday West Virginians and struggling families nationwide.

The president’s budget, which slashes SNAP by nearly 30 percent, will hurt our communities and harm some of our most vulnerable, including the elderly, individuals with disabilities, working families, and those struggling to find work. The cuts would be a crippling blow to our nation’s most effective anti-poverty program, which helps one in eight Americans ensure that they have enough to eat. Assistance could be even more limited if extreme work requirements — like those discussed in our state — are put in place.

The Trump budget also calls for repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and drastically cutting Medicaid, which would take health insurance away from millions of Americans and allow insurance companies to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions.

Medicaid is especially important in West Virginia; 29 percent of our population is covered by either Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a higher share than any other state. Over 200,000 West Virginians were newly enrolled in Medicaid or CHIP between 2013 and March 2017.

Cutting these programs or rolling back the ACA would make health care less accessible and put hundreds of thousands of West Virginians at risk.

These cuts would also be catastrophic for those working to recover from addiction or helping their loved ones do the same. The terrifying and deadly opioid crisis killed 864 West Virginians in 2016. Initial research suggests this number grew in 2017. As the Surgeon General Jerome Adams has said, we need more help, not less, and access to health care and food assistance are vital supports for people in substance use treatment.

The New York Times surveyed experts on how to address the opioid crisis, and most pointed to Medicaid expansion as among the most important responses (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/02/14/upshot/opioid-crisis-solutions.html).

But the president’s budget doesn’t stop there, it also cuts everything from housing assistance to education to job training, along with federal grants to West Virginia and local communities. These proposed cuts get deeper every year, reducing investment where communities need it most and putting even more pressure on our state budget. If passed, this budget would be a recipe for more homelessness, hunger and hardship for our state’s families.

We all win when our communities are healthy and prosperous. And cuts to programs that keep people out of poverty, ensure everyone has access to the care they need, and help put food on the table will have the opposite effect.

Instead of throwing up obstacles to fighting the opioid epidemic or climbing out of poverty, lawmakers in West Virginia and in Washington should focus on making investments that will make those goals more achievable for more people. Smart investments in health care, nutrition, job training and housing assistance are the solution.

It’s time for our elected officials to change course and do what’s right for West Virginia, and that starts with rejecting this budget.

Chantal Fields is executive director at West Virginians for Affordable Health Care.

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