From health care to pot, AG weighs in on local impact

Ferguson talks about number of evolving topics on Olympic Peninsul

As a fourth-generation Washingtonian, Attorney General Bob Ferguson is no stranger to Sequim and given his passion for outdoor recreation he often returns to the Dungeness Spit, which also marks the place he proposed to his wife.

“It’s one of my favorite places,” he said.

Ferguson, accompanied by Mike Webb, legislative affairs director with the Attorney General’s Office, recently toured the Olympic Peninsula — including his 56th Rotary Club appearance in the past two years, visiting clubs in Sequim and Port Angeles — on July 15 and 16.

Before journeying back to the Seattle area, Ferguson and Webb highlighted a number of topics including local jurisdiction’s control of the sale of marijuana, upholding senior health care, predictions of fully funded basic education and Washingtonians’ role in enforcing marriage equality.

Ferguson explained his “job is to enforce Washington state law,” but issues centered on health care, marijuana, basic education and marriage equality are challenged at a state level and often set the scene locally.


Health care

Given people 65 years and older make up more than 40 percent of the age demographic in Sequim, compared to 12.3 percent statewide according to the 2010 United States Census, the enforcement of maintaining standards of senior health care and dealing with fraud is an everlasting concern to Ferguson.

In collaboration with the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, Ferguson worked on a national case against Extendicare, one of the country’s largest long-term care providers.

The 2014 settlement resulted in company officials and its subsidiary Progressive Step Corporation (Pro Step) agreeing to pay $38 million to the United States and eight states to resolve allegations that Extendicare billed Medicare and Medicaid for materially substandard nursing services.

The Sequim-located Extendicare facility, Sequim Heath and Rehabilitation, was not among the facilities directly targeted in the case, but was impacted by court resolution.

“The central issue to that case was about abuse and neglect spawned by chronic understaffing,” Webb said. “The resolution of that case led to higher staff levels.”

Additionally, the recent conviction of Alfredo Tia with second-degree criminal mistreatment in King County Superior Court represents the first time the Attorney General’s Office has convicted a health care provider of felony-level criminal mistreatment.

The case was investigated by the Attorney General’s Office Medicaid Fraud Control Unit given the victim’s care was paid for by Medicaid programs.

“We’re not policy makers, but we make sure laws are upheld,” Ferguson said.

To continue to try to protect the public against Medicaid fraud, Ferguson and Webb hope to get the “False Claims Act” more traction before it expires next July.

The bill, which did get through the House, allows the Attorney General’s Office to “civilly go after Medicaid provider fraud, like over-billing,” Webb said.

“If this bill expires, the state will lose significant resources to prevent fraud, so we’re pushing to re-authorize this program,” Webb said. “It’s one of our best tools to prevent Medicaid fraud.”


Marriage equality

Marriage equality in Washington is nothing new, but to contribute to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling to federally legalize same-sex marriage on June 26, Ferguson joined 15 other states in filing an amicus brief to argue that all states need to honor marriage equality.

“I want to make sure that the voice of Washingtonians’ was heard before the Supreme Court,” he said. “It’s been a very successful outcome.”

As people adjust nationally to the legalization of same-sex marriage, Ferguson has stepped in locally to ensure marriage equality is upheld.

For example, Ferguson said, O’Reilly Auto Parts officials weren’t providing the same health care coverage for a same-sex married person as they did for someone married to the opposite gender.

O’Reilly Automotive Inc., has nearly 150 auto parts store throughout Washington, including one in Sequim. It wasn’t until after Ferguson and his staff demanded that the retail chain extend its health care coverage to the same-sex spouses of its employees that the company changed its policy both statewide and nationally in early April.

Another example includes the owner of a floral shop in Spokane who refused to sell flowers to a man for his wedding to a same-sex partner.

“If you provide a public service, you can’t discriminate,” Ferguson said.

The case was won in trial court, but is now being appealed to the State Supreme Court.

It hasn’t been accepted yet, but Ferguson is “confident the ruling will be upheld there, too, and it will hopefully make it clear if you provide a service, you can’t discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation,” he said.

Ferguson noted he’s recently created a Civil Rights Unit within his office to assist in maintaining things like marriage equality moving ahead within the state.

“The laws only have meaning if they’re enforced,” he said.


Marijuana

Ferguson didn’t share his personal views on legalized marijuana sales, but said “legally” he believes it is up to each local jurisdiction to decide whether to ban or allow the sale of legalized marijuana. This view, he said, stems from his own and his office’s interpretation of the language of the initiative.

Following the initial moratorium put on the sale of legalized marijuana within Sequim city limits in February 2014, the Sequim city councilors have extended two, six-month moratoriums. However the city council is scheduled to revisit the topic at its meeting, Monday, July 27.

“My interpretation has been challenged throughout the state with five litigations,” Ferguson said.

Thus far, the courts have agreed with Ferguson’s view, but the cases are now going through the court of appeals.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill in late June that went into effect at the beginning of the month to allow for revenue sharing with cities and counties from the sale of marijuana.

Only local jurisdictions that allow the sale of legalized marijuana, however, are able to receive any funds from the Legislature’s comprehensive marijuana market reform bill (HB 2136).

For cities and counties allowing the sale of legalized marijuana, between this year and 2017, at least $12 million is to be provided for the distribution between those cities and counties. Counties will receive 60 percent and cities 40 percent and distributions will be based on the taxable sales of the jurisdiction.

After 2017 and through 2019, once the state’s General Fund has received $25 million in marijuana excise tax revenue, it’s anticipated that 30 percent (with a maximum of $20 million per year) will be distributed to cities and counties.

Along with revenue sharing, the bill instates a sales tax exemption for qualifying medical marijuana patients and restructures the marijuana excise tax and allows for local flexibility with zoning buffers.


Basic education

Lastly, Ferguson touched on basic education, tying the issue back to the McCleary decision, a lawsuit initiated by an employee with Sequim’s neighboring Chimacum School District.

“The Supreme Court has said the state has until 2018 to adequately fund K-12 education,” Ferguson said. “That’s the deadline that’s been established.”

In Sequim, the last two construction bonds proposed by Sequim School District that require a super majority have failed. Both bonds included funds to build new classrooms to accommodate upcoming state requirements, including the Washington Class Size Reduction Measure, Initiative 1351 approved in November 2014.

The initiative requires fewer students per classroom in grades K-12. For K-3, each class was required to have no more than 15-17 students. In grades 4-12, each class was required to have no more than 22-25 students.

“The issue of local taxes versus the state investment is one that the Legislature has grappled with in this session, but there’s not been an outcome,” Ferguson said.

Within the $1.3 billion allocated by the Legislature for education, “they essentially fully funded K-3 class size reduction, and that is part of basic education,” Webb said.

However, Webb notes, whether Initiative 1351 is basic education is not settled.

“It’s not right before the court right now, but it might be,” he said. “There is the challenge of defining the line between the state’s duty and local folks who want to do more for their schools versus what is basic education and if it’s basic, then isn’t the state’s duty? Those are some questions that are being asked that are tied in with McCleary.”

The court has asked the Attorney General’s Office to file on behalf of the state a report on the past legislative session and the investments into K-12 education, Ferguson said.

“I think that’s due in the next 10 days,” he said. “We’ll have a hearing to see if the courts are satisfied with the state’s progress toward that milestone (fully funding basic education).”

 

What about Bob?

The Sequim Gazette took a few minutes to get to know State Attorney Bob Ferguson with a few random questions. Fun facts learned include:

• Donald Trump and the New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick tie for first place when it comes to being the last person Ferguson would want to be stuck with on a deserted island.

• Ferguson didn’t pursue college directly out of high school because he moved to Europe to play chess professionally. Ferguson is a two-time Washington State chess champion.

• His best memory of Sequim is proposing to his wife on the Dungeness Spit.

• Best advice Ferguson’s ever been given was “losses first,” according to chess coach and an International Chess Master Nikolay Minev, from Bulgaria.

“By evaluating and dissecting your losses first and to really engage and have an open willingness to have a constructive conversation about what you did wrong – I realized that’s how you become much better at something,” Ferguson said.