Hospice of Saint John is a Casualty of Gridlock
By Vincent CarrollDenver Post editorial page editor
If our political system functioned as intended, we could all agree that hospice care would be one of the very last targets for federal budget cuts.
But of course we don't have such a political system. We have one in which Congress and the White House agreed to reduce spending through across-the-board cuts — the so-called sequestration that went into effect in March.
And so the Hospice of Saint John in Lakewood took a $250,000 hit and, as readers ofThe Denver Post learned last weekend, will be closing its doors after 35 years.
Now, the mandated cut wasn't the hospice's only funding challenge, as reporter Michael Booth noted. But since it contributed to the facility's sad demise, it's important to recall that no one ever defended sequestration as intelligent budgeting. The original selling point back in 2011 for lighting a fuse on across-the-board cuts was, in fact, that it was a genuinely awful idea — so awful that our elected leaders would never permit it to occur.
Instead, they would fashion a bipartisan plan with targeted cuts to address what were then trillion-dollar deficits.
But that bipartisan deal never came to pass. And since Republicans this year weren't about to give up the bird-in-hand of at leastsomeactual spending restraint — $85 billion worth in fiscal 2013 — they refused to be stampeded by hysterical predictions of the damage a sequester would do. Better a meat cleaver than no sharp implement at all.
And to a considerable degree, those Republicans were right. The sequester hasnotbeen the thoroughgoing catastrophe that President Barack Obama and his supporters foresaw.
Thousands of criminals were not released on our streets; meat, poultry and eggs did not disappear from grocery shelves; children were not denied vaccines; travelers did not have time to thumb through Tolstoy's collected works while waiting in security lines.
The Washington Post aptly summarized the fallout in a recent headline: "They said the sequester would be scary. Mostly, they were wrong."
The Post examined 48 of the "dire predictions" made by the Obama administration and found that 11 had more or less come true, 24 had "not come to pass," and in 13 cases "agencies said it is too soon to know."
In a few cases, Congress granted the sort of flexibility that should have been available from the outset. In others, officials simply found ways to cut that didn't impact services, as skeptics always said they could.
The idea that government couldn't trim 5 percent of non-entitlement domestic programs without unleashing a reprise of the biblical plagues was never credible. Yet some unfortunate damage was inflicted nonetheless, such as to that Lakewood hospice. And the sequestration squall is far from over, too. Another round, with somewhat different rules, is scheduled for the fiscal year starting in October. So unless Congress can reach a grand bargain on the budget, other end-of-life facilities may well go, too.
Yet don't expect a grand bargain this time, either. The moment for such a deal has probably passed.
Not only has this year's projected deficit dropped to $759 billion, according to the Office of Management and Budget, it may continue to decline for the next two years. Politicians with near-term vision will be relieved to twiddle their thumbs.
So has the debt problem disappeared? Hardly. Although "annual appropriations, including defense, have been capped," notes Robert Bixby of The Concord Coalition, "mandatory spending (entitlements) and interest on the debt continue to grow on autopilot, driven mostly by population aging and its concomitant steadily growing number of beneficiaries. Revenues are growing too, but not by enough to keep up with projected spending."
We've got a government willing to knock a hospice cockeyed as a form of deficit control but flinches at even a modest level of shared sacrifice on entitlements — and is a good bet to repeat this exercise in political malfeasance again.