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Bill seeking universal health care in Oregon gets first look

The legislation would create a state board charged with coming up with a plan for single-payer health care in Oregon.
February 14, 2023

Oregon lawmakers are considering a bill that could put the state on the path toward a single-payer health care system as it implements a landmark constitutional amendment guaranteeing access to medical care. 

In a packed hearing room, the Senate Health Care Committee on Monday heard initial testimony on Senate Bill 704, which would establish the framework for how the state will ensure universal access to health care. The legislation is in direct response to the passage of Measure 111, a 2022 ballot initiative that made Oregon the first state to adopt a constitutional right to affordable health care

The bill would create the Universal Health Plan Governance Board, a 9-member panel representing various health care interests and the public appointed by the governor. The board would be responsible for coming up with a plan for a single-payer health care plan by 2025. It’ll also oversee the implementation of the plan once it’s implemented in 2027.

The committee has received written testimony from nearly 200 people or organizations in favor of the legislation. Supporters told the committee it’ll put Oregon on the path to containing rising health care costs that’ve hindered access and burned patients with financially ruinous bills. 

“It is well past time that we got corporate profit and private insurance out of Oregonians’ healthcare,” state Rep. Travis Nelson, a Portland Democrat and chief sponsor of the bill, told the committee. “What providers and treatments are available to us shouldn’t be determined by commercial bottom lines.”

Several supporters said the legislation would advance the work of the Joint Task Force on Universal Health Care, which was created by the Legislature in 2019 and produced a report in 2022 laying out how a single-payer system could be implemented in Oregon. 

Sharon Meieran, a Multnomah County commissioner and emergency room doctor, told the committee that high costs from the “fundamentally flawed health care system” are leading reasons why people file for bankruptcy or become homeless. 

The bill also had detractors. 

Tom Holt, a lobbyist for the Oregon Association of Health Underwriters, told the committee that there is room for improvement in the health care system. But he said the task force report used “heroic assumptions” that didn’t explain how savings from a single-payer plan would be realized. 

“From the (association’s) standpoint, this just seems like a project destined to ultimately crash and burn,” he said. 

Elise Brown, lobbyist for America's Health Insurance Plans, told the committee her group also opposed the bill. She pointed to numbers showing that Oregon has an uninsured rate of 6% and that the state has adopted other measures intended to further expand coverage and control costs. 

“We’re eager to work with the state to help the remaining uninsured Oregonians enroll in the appropriate coverage,” she said, pointing to Vermont’s difficulties in adopting universal health access. “But a complete overhaul of the health care system now is the wrong approach.”

You can reach Jake at [email protected] or via Twitter @jakethomas2009.