Dembrow Intends to Keep Single Payer Movement Alive Next Session
October 18, 2012 -- Despite the emphasis on healthcare transformation, evident by the $1.9 billion in federal funds that Governor John Kitzhaber garnered to implement coordinated care organizations, the single payer movement isn’t dead in Oregon.
Its champion, Rep. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland) plans to re-introduce the same legislation again next February. In 2011, it received a hearing in the House but stalled there (House Bill 3510).
This time around, Dembrow has his eyes set on having public hearings in both the House and Senate healthcare committees.
“I don’t see transformation and single payer as being mutually exclusive, but complimentary,” Dembrow said. “The principles of coordinating care are very much the same with the single payer philosophy – focusing on focusing on prevention and primary care including oral health and mental health as well as physical health.”
But Dembrow faces an uphill battle with his legislative colleagues, among them Rep., Tina Kotek (D-Portland) who said she applauded the conversation in 2011 but wants to let the dust settle on health reform before jumping on board.
“With the Affordable Care Act and the coordinated care organizations, we need to see how they work first. If they don’t work we’ll have to move to single payer because it’s an economic issue. People need access to healthcare, and my hope is that restructuring the Oregon Health Plan we can eventually impact and transform the entire private system. Let’s go there first.”
Rep. Bruce Hanna (R-Roseburg) said he’s never seen evidence showing that single payer is the best alternative. “Single payer takes away the competitive nature of providing healthcare. Anytime you eliminate competition, you increase costs, not decrease them.”
Nevertheless, Dembrow plowing ahead and insists that people have serious questions about the impact of the Affordable Care Act.
“It’s a move in the right direction but will still leave people without affordable coverage. Single payer is where we need to wind up as a country because it’s going be most affordable option. In principle, it will extend Medicare to all Oregonians and lead to lower administrative costs, less paperwork and be more comprehensive.”
Thousands of Oregonians favor a single payer system, he believes. “They’re calling for us to move in this direction, and this legislation will create a focus for their organizing to keep this movement going.”
Next session, Dembrow’s also contemplating legislation that would call for a constitutional amendment saying healthcare is a fundamental right, an issue championed in the past by Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland). If successful, it would appear on the November 2014 ballot.
A rally being planned for the opening day of the session next February could draw support for such an amendment.
“If we do go forward with the constitutional referral, it’ll be kicked off then, but we’ll only go forward if I feel like there’s real potential for a statewide organization,” he said. “I don’t want to put this measure on the ballot unless I feel that proponents are willing to organize at the grassroots level to get it through.”
Dembrow realized the need for a single payer system after the birth of his first child, who needed surgery when he was two weeks old. Both he and his wife were graduate students at the time, and the medical bill completely wiped out their savings. Four years later, his daughter was born in France, and Dembrow encountered the single payer system firsthand. “All of our contributions came directly out of our paycheck; we had an excellent level of care without any kind of hardship or worry.”
Later, as president of the faculty union at Portland Community College, he saw the struggles that teachers faced who worked part-time and didn’t have access to healthcare. That led Dembrow to create a fund allowing these educators to be reimbursed for their insurance bills.
During his first stint in the legislature in 2009, he succeeded in passing legislation that allowed part-time faculty to combine their employment from multiple public colleges or universities and become eligible to purchase benefits from the Oregon Educators Benefit Board.