Fresh off his close victory in a Eugene state representative primary, Marty Wilde abounds with energy and enthusiasm.
“We’ve got to have a better insurer for the working poor,” Wilde said, noting the nose-bleed level deductibles on many of the bronze and even silver plans being sold on the exchange. He believes the coordinated care organizations, which operate the Medicaid Oregon Health Plan, could offer better care at lower cost.
The Democrat and executive director of the Lane County Medical Society still sports his military crew cut from his days in the Air Force as a judge advocate general, where he served his country in Afghanistan and Kuwait as well as stateside in Texas.
“After 9/11, we did 200 wills in one day in preparation for the Iraq War,” said Wilde, 43.
He got interested in healthcare policy as a hospital counsel for the military. He met his wife, a pediatrician, in the service, and more recently became the director of the medical society, hoping to rebuild an organization from an exclusive physician’s club to one that provides a community for Eugene-area doctors and mental health resources to stressed-out professionals.
“If you’re at PeaceHealth, you don’t really know what your colleagues in the Oregon Medical Group are doing,” Wilde said.
Health policy is an especially popular area of expertise for Oregon House Democrats, and Wilde is eager to contribute to the discussion. He wants the CCOs to offer a public option to be sold on the health insurance exchange and offered to employers as well.
Wilde said he was open to negotiation on provider rates, offering hospitals higher than Medicaid, if still lower than they charge private insurers. He said hospitals might agree to this because they’re losing money anyway on charity care and bad debts when consumers with high-deductible plans can’t pay for surgeries or wait till they get sick to use their insurance. “People will forgo care if you have a high deductible,” he said.
Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, said Wilde’s CCO public option ideas were novel, although they could fit in well with a task force that he has appointed Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, to lead, which will look at ways that Oregon could make healthcare more affordable and for public programs to cover more people. “I believe we’ll have the discussion,” Greenlick said.
Greenlick said that Oregon policymakers have spent the past 18 months circling the wagons to protect gains to Medicaid and health insurance access from an ambush from President Trump and Washington Republicans, but the long Oregon Trail to universal healthcare must continue.
Wilde is the clear favorite in left-leaning Eugene in the November election, but Republicans have put up a respectable moderate candidate, Mark Herbert, who beat a far-right candidate in last month’s primary by a 3-to-1 vote. Herbert works as a management consultant and served as a Lane County Planning Commission.
The district has been represented by Rep. Phil Barnhart, one of the Oregon House’s most liberal members, since 2001. But Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, said Wilde couldn’t take a victory for Herbert for granted. “It’s an open seat, it’s a swing district,” he said.
The district ropes together a large swath of Republican-leaning small towns and countryside in the southern Willamette Valley with some of the more liberal neighborhoods of Eugene, long one of the state’s most Democratic cities.
The Democratic share of the presidential vote decreased six points in Lane County from 2012 to 2016. While Trump appeared to close the gap with his right-wing populist message to blue-collar Democrats, he actually received a lower percentage of votes than Mitt Romney in Lane County. Almost all of the losses came from disaffected Obama voters choosing third-party candidates, a pattern that was also true in Lincoln, Tillamook and Columbia counties.
Beyer said he hoped those numbers were an “aberration,” but if Democrats are to retain or expand their majority in the fall, they will have to shore up places in Lane County and on the Coast that moved away from the party, and increase inroads in upscale towns like Bend, Ashland, Hood River and West Linn that have shifted their way -- while maintaining appeal to these disparate groups.
The Democratic primary for this district was a friendly affair but still the closest primary in the state, as Wilde dispatched Kimberly Koops 53-46. Both candidates expressed strong progressive credentials, but Wilde was more moderate in subtle ways. The Oregon Nurses Association and public employee unions backed Koops, while the Oregon Health Care Association and Beyer, the moderate-liberal senator who represents that district, backed Wilde.
Beyer said he was drawn to Wilde’s military background as well as experience in the healthcare arena when he endorsed him over Koops. Beyer, who sits on the Senate Health Committee, said he expects the policy area to be a critical part of the 2019 session.
Wilde grew up in the rural Triangle Lake community in western Lane County, and he said he understood how his father had trouble supporting certain tax measures without an obvious benefit.
At the same time, Wilde supports single-payer healthcare and is worried about threats to women’s reproductive freedom. He lauded the state’s expansion of the Oregon Health Plan’s family planning services to unauthorized immigrant women. “It probably saved money for the program,” he said.
In addition to Greenlick’s workgroup, the state is also looking at rate-setting and global budgets for hospitals, which have been a leading driver of healthcare costs, along with pharmaceuticals, which are being studied by a third task force.
“We need to move toward single-payer,” Beyer said. “It would be nice to have a national system, but that’s not on the horizon.”
Single-payer has often felt like a lonely dream sought by ardent liberals like Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, but now even moderate Democrats are taking up the cause as a way for the party to reconnect with its working-class roots, as the policy is popular even among people who might not agree with them on cultural issues.
Although a successful attorney married to a doctor, Wilde comes from modest roots himself and said he didn’t know how lucky he was growing up on a small organic farm in Triangle Lake and receiving the Oregon Health Plan. That community struggles with healthcare access, but had a country doctor at the time. “He came up by the school and he took Medicaid,” he said. Now he wants to extend the access he experienced as a rural youth to Oregonians across the state.
Reach Chris Gray at [email protected].