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Healthcare Financing Study Bill Clears Difficult Hurdle with $300,000

A study first conceived by Sen. Michael Dembrow in 2013 that passed without funding, has repassed with $300,000 in state money after private donations came up short. Support for the study has a bipartisan history, but as a thorough and objective study comes closer to a reality, the political pressure mounts against it. The state money, however, is enough for the study to move forward.
July 1, 2015

The Oregon universal healthcare financing study bill cleared the top budget committee after a contentious hearing Monday, with $300,000 attached to design the best way of financing a universal healthcare system in Oregon.

House Bill 2828 has been a top priority of Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, as well as single-payer activists, who believe it will lead to their preferred method of healthcare financing system through a government-managed health insurance plan. But the bill specifically asks for an objective study weighing four options, pointedly not recommending any option such as single payer.

The hearing was subject to an array of misinformation about the bill, perhaps the result of behind-the-scenes pressure from the hospital and insurance industry lobbies, which could stand to lose millions if Oregon adopted single-payer. Now, a substantial amount of money spent by government and Oregon businesses intended for patient care is being diverted to industry profits and lucrative salaries for hospital management even at non-profit hospitals.

In particular, Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who had previously supported an unfunded study in 2013, joined all but one of the Republicans in opposing HB 2828 in the Ways & Means Committee, telling her colleagues she was worried that private money could bias the outcome, since the study was projected to cost twice as much as the state allocation -- $600,000 -- and was relying on private sources for the reminder.

“What I’m worried about is a tsunami of private contributions that could come flooding in to influence the outcome,” Johnson posited.

“I would be a yes if I thought the study would be objective, but I don’t see there’s any way,” said Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, a dentist. “I think right now we’re a bunch of lemurs heading off the cliff, and you’re going to have a bunch of lemurs doing the study.”

In fact, HB 2828 came about because that unfunded 2013 study only attracted about $50,000 in pledges and donations, too little to do a study. As Dembrow explained later to The Lund Report, the $300,000 in state money will be enough for the Oregon Health Authority to move forward with the study. And if any additional private donations were to influence the outcome, it would defeat the purpose of the study and discredit the outcome, which is informational and non-binding.

“I think we will be prepared to go forward with the study with the $300,000, and money we’ve already raised. The more we put into the study, the more the researchers will be able to answer,” Dembrow said. “The results of the study won’t do any good if they’re perceived to be tainted. We’re hoping it will put forward credible, Oregon-focused information.”

“That’s enough to do a good study,” agreed Dr. Sam Metz, a Portland anesthesiologist who has had the difficult task of soliciting private funds since 2013. “Most of the Legislature who are aware of the study know that it’s a value.”

Dembrow said since a lot of scholarship has already been completed on healthcare financing in the United States, the researchers could piggyback on that work, although with more money, they could do a more thorough analysis. The study could possibly be conducted by healthcare researchers at Oregon State University,by another university or by health financing experts at a private firm such as Wakely Consulting, but any contract would be awarded through an open bidding process.

The concept for a study has a much more bipartisan history than what appeared at Monday’s hearing, when just one Republican, Sen. Jackie Winters of Salem, supported the measure. In 2013, Johnson as well as two Republicans who are now on the Ways & Means Committee supported an unfunded predecessor health financing study, Sen. Bill Hansell of Pendleton and Rep. Gene Whisnant of Sunriver.

On the floor, Republicans such as Sen. Jeff Kruse of Roseburg and Rep. Andy Olson of Albany had supported House Bill 3460, paying deference to part of the study that will look at a bare-bones universal health coverage plan that could potentially be funded by a sales tax -- a longtime goal of former Sen. Frank Morse, a progressive Republican from Albany. It also had the support of 2014 GOP gubernatorial candidate Rep. Dennis Richardson of Central Point.