54° Good Afternoon
54° Good Afternoon

OPINION: Don't demonize safety-net programs for the needy

Gwen O'Shea is president and chief executive of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, an umbrella group that represents a variety of nonprofit social service organizations.

You know the saying "perception is reality"? Well, what happens when misperception becomes not just reality, but the reasoning behind critical decisions made by public officials?

As the head of a nonprofit advocating for safety-net programs that provide lifelines to the poor and vulnerable, I worry about the misperception that lumps all public programs together with little or no differentiation. In reality, there are those that make up the safety net - such as Medicaid, Child and Family Health Plus Health Insurance and food stamps - and the other public programs like Medicare, Social Security and public pensions.

The problem lies in the waste and fraud that seem to make headlines every couple of weeks, which build frustration in government as a whole and skepticism that our public officials are capable of delivering the services they are obligated to provide. This election season, Medicaid has been made the poster child for waste and fraud and the primary target for reform, and that casts a long and dark shadow obscuring the success of New York's public health-care system.

No one would argue that there is no waste and fraud to be corrected. But over the past 10 years, New York has made significant advancements in providing access to basic health care to tens of thousands of low-income New Yorkers. The reality is that this has kept people healthier, out of the emergency room for primary care services and made them less of a drain on the public safety net.

The public seems to agree that there's value in this program. A study this month by The Pew Center on the States and Public Policy Institute of California showed that 52 percent of New Yorkers are willing to pay more in taxes as long as the money goes to health and human services. Asked what they most want to protect from cutbacks, 48 percent said kindergarten through 12th-grade education, and 26 percent said Medicaid - programs that make up half of New York's budget.

We all know there are people who desperately need the temporary support that the safety-net programs provide, and none of us want to let children, seniors, the disabled or the disadvantaged go without access to basic health care.

There's a lot of fervor right now to "clean up" Albany, and when it comes to corruption and cronyism, I'm all for it.

But voters shouldn't let the reality that vital programs have been making significant progress in assisting New Yorkers get swept up in the "broken government" perceptions. They need to be preserved for those who need them most.


We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.