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For Governor, The Pandemic And Health Care Stay In Forefront

Gov. Kate Brown gave her final State of the State address Thursday, with an eye toward pushing Oregon beyond COVID-19 and expanding the state’s health care workforce.
State health officials are racing to win federal approval of Oregon Health Plan changes before Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, shown at the Oregon Convention Center vaccination site, leaves office. | KRISTYNA WENTZ-GRAFF/OPB
February 4, 2022

Gov. Kate Brown faces a double-pronged task as she enters her final year of office: She is guiding the state through the COVID-19 pandemic and, she hopes, setting the stage for Oregon’s health care workforce to grow after the virus recedes. 

Both of those goals are part of the agenda Brown laid out Thursday in her final State of the State address. In a sign that the pandemic continues, Brown gave her speech virtually as commenters on YouTube criticized mask and vaccine requirements for health care workers. 

Brown’s days in office are numbered. The speech comes nine months before Oregon voters will elect her successor in the November election. This means anything the Legislature passes during the short, 35-day session will need buy-in from a future governor to endure in the years ahead. Brown hammered that point home as she laid out her agenda for investments in workforce development programs, housing, education and the environment. 

“This, all of this, is the work we must carry forward, in my last year, and under the next administration,” Brown said. “And we must continue to act with urgency.”

In rural communities in particular, Brown and public health officials have faced criticism for lockdowns during the pandemic and other measures that forced restaurants and other businesses to lower capacity to slow the spread of the virus. Reflecting on those measures, Brown said “managing the pandemic has required aggressive and decisive actions to preserve the health and safety of our communities.”

Even now, more than 1,000 Oregonians with COVID-19 are in hospitals, Brown said, calling this “one of our more difficult chapters.”

Brown also touched on health care access: More than 95% of Oregonians and all children have access to health care coverage. That work started before the pandemic: In 2017, the Legislature passed “Cover All Kids,” which set the stage for children to get full health care coverage regardless of immigration status.

Under Brown’s tenure, Oregon also passed comprehensive reproductive health care legislation, which requires private health insurers, including employer-sponsored plans, to provide access to reproductive health and preventative services with no cost-sharing. It keeps that coverage in place regardless of whether the federal Affordable Care Act changes.

Brown’s blueprint for expanding job opportunities puts $200 million into job training programs aimed at three sectors: health care, tech and manufacturing and construction. Under that plan, local groups like economic development agencies and community colleges could seek grants to start or expand training programs.

Brown cast the plan, which requires legislative approval, as a way for people to plan careers that go beyond entry-level jobs. 

“We need to take an entry-level job, like a certified nursing assistant, and provide the skills to advance to careers in paramedicine, nursing or health care administration,” Brown said. “That’s turning a job into a career.”

Brown said this approach would help community-based organizations and, as an example, highlighted OCHIN, a Portland-based health care nonprofit with a national footprint. Much of the company’s work involves IT and other technology-related services like telehealth.

“We will drive innovation through flexible grants to community-based organizations that uniquely target the industries I just mentioned — like OCHIN, who is providing technology training for people in their own communities with a goal of placing them in good-paying jobs in health care,” Brown said.

Her goal, she said, is to transition the state beyond the pandemic, while also helping underserved communities, including minority groups, people of color, veterans and people in rural areas.

Brown said the state needs to “transition from a rolling crisis into a sustainable posture that supports our workers, businesses and (the) health care industry.”

Brown said expanding access to behavioral health and substance use disorder services is critical, adding she’ll work with the Legislature to “finalize significant investments.” 

Before Brown’s speech, the House Committee on Behavioral Health heard testimony about a bill that would provide incentives to help providers pay their workers more, a move aimed at retaining and recruiting people to the behavioral health field.

Brown decried the state’s growing homelessness and affordable housing crisis. Her budget priorities include $400 million for affordable housing.

“Housing affordability and homelessness are not issues we can solve overnight,” Brown said. “This crisis has been decades in the making, and in the last two years it has only worsened due to the pandemic and natural disasters.”

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.