Major Pieces of Health Care Legislation Threatened By Republican Walkout

SALEM – This week, the Oregon House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill to set up a statewide prescription drug take-back program.

House Bill 3273, which would force prescription drug makers to fund take-back kiosks in every city, would give Oregonians "a safe, convenient way to dispose of drugs that will reduce accidental poisonings and access to opioids by removing unused, unwanted drugs from our homes," Rep. Sheri Schouten, D-Beaverton, said on the House floor before its passage Tuesday by a 56-3 vote.

But in heading to the Senate, the bill runs up against the epic drama that has unfolded in that chamber over the past week.

Senate Republicans' walkout last Thursday over a controversial carbon reduction bill has garnered national attention and left roughly 150 bills dangling over a cliff. Rather than being passed into law, bills like HB 3273 face an imminent demise as the walkout reaches a week with a settlement still unclear.

The 11 Oregon Senate Republicans remained out of state for a seventh day Wednesday to deny Democrats a quorum – despite Senate President Peter Courtney's assurance on Tuesday that the carbon bill they walked out over didn't have the votes to pass.

Gov. Kate Brown is threatening to hold a special session next week to take up unfinished business like the passage of agency budget bills. But any bill that has failed to pass both chambers by the state's constitutionally mandated June 30 adjournment date will effectively be killed and need to be reintroduced in committees.

The looming deadline threatens several major pieces of health care legislation lawmakers have spent months, or even years, crafting. Here are some of the bills put in jeopardy by Sunday's looming adjournment deadline:

Tobacco Taxes

After months on the sidelines and seemingly in doubt, Brown's $340 million tobacco tax package suddenly roared back to life. A House committee passed House Bill 2270 to the full House floor earlier this month, and the House voted 39-21 last week to send it to the Senate.

The tobacco package – a proposed $2 per pack tax hike on cigarettes and a new e-cigarette tax, a doubling of the state's 50-cent maximum tax per cigar and the ban of single cigars cheaper than $3 – is one of Brown's so-called funding pillars for Oregon Health Plan, which provides health coverage for nearly 1 million low-income Oregonians.

But failure to vote on HB 2270 by the end of Sunday would force Democrats to redraft the bill in the House Committee on Health Care. Even if Republicans return to Salem this week, Brown can't afford a single Democratic defection in the Senate, since the revenue-raising bill needs a three-fifths majority to pass.

Several House and Senate Democrats, who said they didn't want to discuss sensitive legislative deliberations on the record while Brown and Democratic leaders were in talks with Republicans about ending the walkout, told The Lund Report the tobacco taxes were too important to Brown's health care agenda to simply let die.

"We can put it back together, and I imagine it would be a top priority with the governor wanting long-term funding for the (Oregon) Health Plan," a House Democrat told The Lund Report this week.

A spokeswoman for Brown didn't immediately return a message seeking comment.

Oregon legislators' budget framework released early in this year's session dedicated $450 million from the state's general fund for the Oregon Health Plan. Those funds, along with new taxes on hospitals and insurance premiums that breezed through the legislature in March, are expected to ensure stable funding for the health plan through the next biennium.

But failure to get HB 2270 through the Legislature would amount to a major rebuke of Brown's Medicaid funding strategy. The tobacco taxes would already be subject to voter approval in the 2020 general election, and Brown is eyeing the revenue to put the Oregon Health Plan on solid long-term footing as the state prepares to shoulder the full cost burden of the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion for the first time next year.

Without the revenue from the taxes, lawmakers could enter the next long session in 2021 with a large structural imbalance for the health plan.

The late 2020 election "actually gives us some time to do it in a deliberate way" if there isn't time in a special session to redraft HB 2270 and get it through committees in a special session, a Senate Democrat told The Lund Report.

Oregon Health Authority Budget

Hanging in limbo along with policy bills are numerous budget bills for state agencies, including the Oregon Health Authority.

Senate Bill 5525, the $23.1 billion health authority funding bill, is parked in the Senate along with several other high-profile agency budgets after passing unanimously out of the budget writing Joint Committee on Ways and Means last week.

Senate President Peter Courtney invoked those budgets while imploring Republicans on Tuesday to return to the Capitol, after sending the building into a frenzy by announcing the carbon bill didn't have the Democratic votes to pass.

But lawmakers said privately that there is less urgency to revive the budget bills than some of the comprehensive policy bills. The House and Senate quietly passed a continuing resolution this month to fund agencies past the July 30 deadline at their current levels through Sept. 15.

Brown signed the continuing resolution into law Tuesday.

"There's not an immediate risk, and it's not like anyone is expecting (the Republican Senate walkout) to go into September or anything crazy like that," a House Democrat told The Lund Report. If a special session is called next week, "the budget bills would be the priority, and we would just have to see what we could get through besides those."

Paid Family And Medical Leave

The fate of policy bills like a comprehensive paid family and medical leave plan is less certain.

The House last week passed House Bill 2005, which would grant up to 12 weeks of paid leave for parents of newborns, sick leave for a serious illness or family member's illness or to recover from a trauma like a sexual assault.

The bill passed 45-13, with several Republicans joining all Democrats in favor. Passage in the Senate would make Oregon the seventh state in the country with such a program, where employees and employers split the cost through a state-managed insurance fund.

HB 2005 sped through House and joint committees this month, after being amended to reduce the leave period from up to 32 weeks in certain situations under the original bill.

But despite bipartisan support, many Republicans and business groups raised concerns about its cost to businesses, especially small businesses that may struggle to find replacement workers while their employees are on leave.

Lawmakers said this week that its fate, and the outcome of other policy bills, were secondary to Democratic and Republican leaderships' discussions about getting Republican Senators back in the building.

Senate Republicans were reportedly huddling Wednesday to discuss ways to get assurance from Courtney that Democrats wouldn't pull a bait-and-switch on the carbon bill – agreeing to shelve it only to surprise Republicans by bringing it up for a vote once they returned.

"I don't think anyone knows for sure. I don't want to put my name out there guessing about a hypothetical," a House Democrat involved in crafting the paid leave bill said Wednesday when asked if it would be a priority in a special session if Senate Democrats don't have time to pass it before Sunday's deadline.

Universal Health Care And Medicaid Buy-In

Progressive health care reform advocates have pushed for a bill to study how to move Oregon toward a system of universal coverage.

A recent amendment to Senate Bill 770 would also develop a Medicaid buy-in program for Oregonians who earn too much to qualify for the Oregon Health Plan or the Affordable Care Act's subsidies.

But SB 770 still needs to be approved by the full Senate and House. Whether that could happen by the end of Sunday is unclear.

Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene, the bill's chief sponsor, said he's confident SB 770 will pass, and he's repeatedly highlighted its growing support among Democrats. 

Lawmakers in either chamber were huddled in their offices much of the day on Wednesday. The House adjourned earlier in the day and has no bills to vote on Thursday. With business in the Senate ground to a halt, representatives have little to do but wait for a resolution.

"Things like universal health care, the broader vision kinds of things, some of that is going to get pushed out" to next year's session or beyond, a House Democrat said Wednesday.

Have a tip about the health-care industry or legislation? You can reach Elon Glucklich at [email protected].

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