Greenlick and Courtney Applaud OHA Budget, But Deal with GOP Elusive

House Speaker Tina Kotek has set up a game of high-stakes chicken, scheduling a vote tomorrow on the Oregon Health Authority budget and a new tax on hospitals and insurers without critical votes. The budget bolsters funding for public health and mental health.

Democratic leaders praised aspects of the Oregon Health Authority budget that was approved by the budget committee on Tuesday but it goes to a floor vote on Thursday still lacking a critical Republican vote in the Oregon House of Representatives.

The $19.9 billion budget, outlined in House Bill 5026, includes an additional $20 million for community mental health and provides a down-payment of $5 million to modernize the state’s teetering public health system.

“I think $5 million would be a good start -- at least it gets the ball rolling,” said Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, who has led efforts to reform the state’s public health system, which timber-dependent counties have found increasingly difficult to fund. “We need $100 million. We’re 1/20th of the way.”

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who first won approval of a dedicated tax for mental health care in 2013, had high praise for HB 5026, which averts cuts to mental health and supplements current spending levels with the additional $20 million.

“Mental health treatment is more than a budget issue. Treatment changes people’s lives. It can save people’s lives,” Courtney said in a statement.  “We have made improvements in recent years, but too many Oregonians still aren’t receiving the services they require. This increase keeps us moving in the right direction. It doesn’t meet all of Oregon’s needs. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Courtney spokesman Robin Maxey said that the Senate president had called for additional investments in community mental health services earlier in the session. Under an early budget outline, mental health services had been targeted for a $20.5 million reduction in funding.

But Courtney’s praise came with a caveat: the source of the increased funding comes from increased tobacco tax revenues, as more Oregonians purchased cigarettes and other cancer-causing tobacco products than anticipated. More money for mental health now could end up meaning increased costs for treating lung and heart diseases down the road.

On top of the new community mental health investments, the budget package maintains current operations of the state’s two mental hospitals, leaving some wards and adjacent cottages closed. Gov. Kate Brown had proposed balancing the healthcare budget by closing the smaller of the two hospitals in Junction City -- an idea that never gained traction in the Legislative Assembly.

Legislators Play Chicken

HB 5026 can only be funded if a companion tax bill, House Bill 2391, also passes, and House Republicans remain lined up against raising taxes on health insurance companies to pay for Medicaid. All four House Republicans present for Tuesday’s meeting of the Committee on Ways & Means voted against both bills.

The tax deal reins in spending at the Oregon Health Authority and the coordinated care organizations while creating $520 million in new taxes, which will allow the state to receive roughly $1.5 billion in federal dollars for Medicaid. The deal also provides relief to the individual health insurance market with a new reinsurance pool, which health insurers could draw from to pay claims for high-cost members.

All tax measures need a three-fifths supermajority to pass the Legislature, and the Democrats are a vote shy in each chamber. The OHA budget and the tax deal has the support of all the CCOs and hospital systems as well as every health insurer except Regence BlueCross BlueShield.

The Senate Republicans are also not fighting the bill, and several of them signed off on it at the budget hearing. It must first pass the House of Representatives, however, where a supportive vote has not yet materialized.

Rep. Duane Stark, R-Central Point, told The Lund Report after the two bills passed the budget committee that House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Prineville, was still meeting behind closed doors with House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, to reach a deal.

As of Wednesday, negotiation was still at an impasse: “Speaker Kotek has been so far unwilling to agree to any kind of compromise,” said Preston Mann, the spokesman for McLane. “Negotiations are ongoing.”

The deadlock is providing the Legislature with a game of chicken similar to 2013, when Senate Republicans held the funding package for the Oregon Health Authority budget hostage hoping to get concessions from the majority Democrats. They lost.

That same session, Kotek pushed a tax vote onto the floor, assured she would have the votes of two moderate Republicans, Rep. Bob Jenson of Pendleton and Rep. Greg Smith of Heppner. In that situation, the Republicans called the Democrats’ bluff and forced Kotek to spike the bill.

Smith was among the four Republicans to vote against both bills on Tuesday.

Reach Chris Gray at [email protected].

News source: