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House Bill Would Set Up Mobile Health Units In Oregon 

Mobile health units in two communities would target health disparities in the proposed pilot program.
Last year a state employee inadvertently released the vaccination status of some 40,000 Oregon state employees. Pictured is an Aviva Health temporary COVID-19 testing and vaccination site in Roseburg. | PHOTO COURTESY OF AVIVA HEALTH
February 3, 2022

Oregon lawmakers want to see if mobile health units could help eliminate health disparities among underserved communities.

House Bill 4052 would create a pilot program with two mobile health units in separate communities. The goal is to send teams of health care workers into areas where access to basic primary health care services is lacking. The teams would hold events with services such as checkups and preventative screenings, with an eye toward improving health care access.

The bill, presented Wednesday in the House Health Care Committee, drew widespread support among a mix of providers and advocates. It represents another step toward Oregon’s work to eliminate racial inequities, including those in the health care system.

“The pandemic pulled back the curtain on health inequities in Oregon that already existed,” said Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego and one of the sponsors of the bill. Other chief sponsors are: Rep. Rachel Prusak, D-Tualatin/West Linn and chair of the committee; Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, and Rep. Lisa Reynolds, D-Portland’s West Side.

It could establish the basis for a statewide system of mobile health units. First, lawmakers want to see how it works on a smaller scale. 

“Meeting people kind of where they are is the idea behind it,” Salinas said in an interview with The Lund Report, “but also measuring to make sure it is worth our money and our time as a state.”

The Oregon Health Authority would administer the program and select organizations for grants. An advisory group with representation from health care professionals and people in underserved groups would provide guidance on how to fund and operate the program. In the long term, the health authority would be required to provide a study that examines how that system would work — or not work — on a statewide scale. That report would be due by June 30, 2026.

There are unknowns for the potential program. The legislation doesn’t pick the communities where the pilot project would start.

“The bill specifies we want you to work with the various Regional Health Equity coalitions to identify two areas that would make sense to deploy mobile health units,” Salinas said.

Lawmakers are also still waiting on a financial analysis to get a price tag. Salinas said it’s likely to be higher than $2 million, the figure in a similar bill that didn’t pass in the 2021 session.

Health care organizations with experience running mobile health units back the proposal. One is the Oregon Primary Care Association, which represents 34 community health centers in the state. Those centers, also called federally qualified health centers, serve more than 466,000 Oregonians, 40% of them a racial or ethnic minority. 

“Oregon’s health centers have operated mobile health units in their communities for decades and can attest to the value they bring as community centered solutions to improve access for patients who face economic, neighborhood, racial, language, and cultural barriers,” Marty Carty, government affairs director for the association, said in submitted testimony. “As a critical component to culturally responsive care, mobile clinic staff often reflect the communities they are outreaching. Most importantly, mobile clinic teams work to build lasting relationships that help transition patients into wrap-around primary care and other services at health center sites.”

The pilot would serve people of all ages, including children. Raquel Salazar, a program manager with Our Children Oregon, pointed to disparities among children in Oregon’s health care system. For example, 39% of Black Oregonian children were not not up-to-date on childhood immunizations in 2019, a rate of more than 10% higher than white children, Salazar said.

“When certain segments of our child population are left with fewer opportunities to maintain and improve their health outcomes, Oregon communities as a whole suffer as a result,” Salazar said.

Rep. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook, said adequate funding is important. 

“I see this as a very successful program,” Weber said.” I don’t want to see this as a failure or something that is just for a limited period of time and (then) we don’t have funding to take it into the future.”

Salinas agreed, adding that lawmakers are waiting for the health authority to provide financial details.

“Like you, I want this done right,” Salinas said.

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