WHEELING – From ancient times until the late 1800s, physicians believed in bloodletting as a treatment for all kinds of diseases. 

Doctors and scientists thought that blood carried what they called “humours” that got out of balance in sick people, and that pouring out some of the blood would balance them and cure the disease. Sometimes leeches were used. We know now that this thinking was wrong and that intentionally bleeding a patient usually hurts and can even kill.

Progress has taken us beyond bloodletting in medicine, and except for a few rare circumstances, it is no longer done. The leeches have been done away with completely, and we can all thank God for that. But progress has not been as rapid in other areas.

Our flagship universities at WVU and Marshall are the most vital economic organs in West Virginia today. They generate five dollars in present economic activity for every dollar we put into them. But more importantly, they create the educated workforce that is the key to attracting modern businesses and industries to our state. In addition, tens of thousands of West Virginians work at WVU, Marshall or our other colleges and universities.

Of nearly equal importance as an economic organ is our health care industry. Healthcare employs more than 80,000 West Virginians – more than one in every ten West Virginians who has a job works in healthcare. Our aging population and the high rates of injury and disease relative to other states means that our demand for health care is high and will grow for the foreseeable future.

Telling West Virginia that it should bleed education, and bleed healthcare, to save money is no different than telling a person that bleeding their arteries and veins will cure sickness. A prescription like that not only fails to heal, it actively harms the patient.

Unfortunately, we have elected politicians who are pursuing exactly that course. Over the last three years, Republican majorities in our State Senate and House of Delegates have cut from education and cut from health care and the largest cuts are coming this year. Tens of millions of dollars are being taken from WVU, Marshall, and our other schools.

Even more disturbingly, tens of millions are being cut from Medicaid, despite the fact that those funds are subject to a 3-1 federal match. That means if we cut thirty million dollars from our own Medicaid funding, ninety million federal dollars are lost along with it. Cutting of our nose to spite our face does not begin to describe the disastrous nature of such counterproductive actions.

These cuts were not, by any means, necessary. The legislature spent nearly six months this year debating and dithering over a big cut in income taxes that benefits mainly wealthier people and a “balancing” sales tax increase that hits mainly low-income folks. So much time, and hot air, went into the Republican plan to shift taxes down the income ladder that there was no time left to find a sensible budget plan when the tax gambit finally blew up this week.

In fairness, I should acknowledge that the Republicans were supported in their foolish effort to shift taxes from the well-heeled an onto working people by the governor, who is a registered Democrat. There is something about Republicans and billionaires alike that just can’t stand income taxes and that’s easy enough to figure out. Take a look at this graphic from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy that explains how shifting from income taxes to sales taxes works:

We simply cannot afford this bloodletting. If millionaires and billionaires have to pay a little more in tax to keep Marshall and WVU funded, that’s what they need to do. Medicaid provides a safety net and a measure of health care service for hundreds of thousands of West Virginians. Telling them to go without will cost more in the long run than we could ever save through cuts. It would increase ER visits, lost time from work, and other drags on the economy. Moreover, the majority of those helped by Medicaid are children. We should be ashamed to let children go without medicine to feed anti-government ideology. But apparently not all of us are.

The reason Republicans are bleeding our vital industries is obvious: they are more committed to their ideology and their reelection than they are to our state and its people. The tax cuts for the rich they were so greedily pursuing while the budget fire burned out of control would have left the state even more strapped in years to come. One Eastern Panhandle Republican said we spend too much money on higher education and that the cuts are nowhere near deep enough. More leeches, nurse!

A typical response to all these facts that I often hear is this: “Democrats didn’t get it done either, and they were in control for decades.” It’s a forceful response because there is significant truth to it. When the budget was not so tight ten or twelve years ago, politicians of both parties were eager to cut taxes and take credit, including the Democrats. Those unwise cuts play a big role in where our budget is today, and I can’t hang that on Republicans. But nothing is so bad it can’t get worse and at some point, we can’t listen to the fire telling us the frying pan was no picnic either.

The solution, as we were told over fifty years ago by a young President is a new kind of leadership – and new leaders. Our state is in the grips of a lethal addiction crisis. What we need are not savage cuts to our medical schools and facilities and care providers but a redoubling of our investments in them. We need to increase our support for law enforcement and first responders who bear the heaviest burdens from the drug scourge. We need to expand research and treatment for the addicted, and save as many of our kids as we can.

If you don’t think so, consider this: More West Virginians died from overdoses last year than we lost in the entire Vietnam War.

But there was no time to address that unprecedented disaster in Charleston this year. We had GOP majorities looking for tax cuts for the wealthy, and a few remaining Democrats trying to hold onto the inadequate services we have. A new generation of leaders must be elected to meet today’s problems. Until then, we will continue to live in the distant past, where instead of antibiotics, instead of therapy, instead of scientific treatments, a sick and dying patient gets witchcraft, quackery, and leeches.

Regan is the former vice chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party and an attorney at Bordas & Bordas in Wheeling. He blogs at www.HomeYesterday.com.

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