Health Leaders Look Beyond 2016 Session to Fulfill Policy Goals

A group of four Democrats and one Republican discussed their policy ideas in Portland on Wednesday, but aside from a few modest proposals for the upcoming February session, goals from single-payer to improved consumer product safety and better Medicaid regulations may wait until 2017 and beyond.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, said she’d go after funding for a loan repayment program for medical providers in the 2016 session, while other legislators dialed down expectations for this year and directed their goals to the future at an Oregon Health Forum event Wednesday morning in Portland attended by more than 160 health professionals. .

Steiner Hayward said the Legislature dedicated more on loan assistance programs in 2013 than it had in two decades, but dropped the ball in 2015 on continuing its loan repayment program, a critical way of addressing provider shortages as physicians and other providers face escalating education costs. “That’s something we left out,” she said.

Earlier this month, Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, announced legislation that would increase the regulation of the state’s coordinated care organizations and require them to hold public board meetings, such as the state’s public medical school, Oregon Health & Science University, must do.

But now he said the work may begin next month but will likely extend into next year. “We may not be settling these issues in 2016 but we’re cueing them up for 2017,” he said.

And Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, a longtime advocate of guaranteed universal healthcare, including single-payer health insurance, said he expected a healthcare financing study he worked to secure funding for last year would provide the template for a ballot measure. “My goal of a single-payer system is that it does happen in Mitch Greenlick’s lifetime,” Dembrow said.

The 80-year-old Greenlick, taking a more Eeyore posture, said he’d never live to see single-payer in Oregon, and wished instead to focus more attention on incremental steps toward universal coverage, such as the Basic Health Plan proposals, which would allow insurers to offer coordinated care at a much lower cost than the health plans on the insurance exchange for qualifying individuals.

Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, still savoring the success of passing a law to phase-out the use of toxic chemicals in children’s products, said she would wait until at least 2017 to improve upon the law and follow the lead of California to improve the safety of cosmetics and products aimed at pregnant women.

Greenlick brought up the problem of reducing lead in the environment, just as fears of the toxic element have resurfaced because of the man-made water poisoning disaster in Flint, Mich. In Oregon, Greenlick said reports of lead poisoning were increasing from foul air around airports in Hillsboro and east Multnomah County.

“The lead content in the air in Hillsboro is the worst in the state,” he said, blaming propeller-driven aircraft for the problem, since they’re still using leaded fuel even as that product has long since been phased out for automobiles in the United States.

In 2015, he tried to pass a tax on leaded aviation fuel that would encourage the use of environmentally safer -- but more expensive -- airplane fuel. The bill died after opposition from the Port of Portland and aviation companies that said there was no viable alternative to the leaded fuel being used.

In follow-up questions, he also expressed concern that Washington County communities are becoming increasingly reliant on the Willamette River for drinking water, which requires greater water treatment.

Chris can be reached at chris@thelund;report.org.

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