Nurses Association Supports Drive to Amend Constitution

Red-shirted citizen activists of Health Care for All Oregon packed the hearing room in a special evening meeting of the House Health Committee to lend support to Rep. Mitch Greenlick’s ballot push to declare healthcare a fundamental right for Oregonians.

As she testified Wednesday night, Carolanne Fry said it should’ve been her mother’s 53rd birthday. Instead, it was the third anniversary of her funeral, her life cut short of cancer, a condition she only learned of a few months before her death.

Fry said her mom worked a string of minimum wage jobs like gas station clerk. None of them provided health insurance.

“She was the working poor,” she said. “My grandma doesn’t have a daughter because my mom couldn’t afford healthcare.”

Fry is just one of dozens of Oregon residents who crowded a hearing room long after the sun went down on Wednesday to call upon legislators to let voters amend the state constitution to declare healthcare a right to all residents, similar to public education.

The House Health Committee passed the measure on a party-line 5-3 vote after 7 p.m., sending it to the House floor for a vote next week.

Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, the author of the ballot referral enclosed in House Joint Resolution 203, laid out the gains Oregon has made since the “bad old days” 30 years ago, when 20 percent of the state was without health insurance.

The Oregon Health Plan, Healthy Kids, Obamacare, Cover All Kids -- each has taken a chunk out of that uninsured rate, which is now down below 5 percent.

The ballot referral does not set up any new programs or have dollars attached to it. For Greenlick, it’s more of a line in the sand.

“It became clear in the last year that the federal government is an unreliable partner in expanding healthcare access,” he said. “They seem to be eager to reverse the progress we’ve made over the last 25 years. Oregon needs to be ready to move forward at its own rate.”

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has proposed paying for a large tax cut that Congress passed late last year by cutting away at “entitlements” -- the big federal social insurance programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

President Trump has given states permission to purge Medicaid rolls if people don’t meet work requirements. In a more recent move, federal health officials are also debating whether to allow states to put lifetime caps on Medicaid eligibility, similar to those that exist for cash welfare programs. If a poor person had used up their healthcare eligibility in previous years, states could deny healthcare access to them when they were older and in more need of care.

These policies may not immediately come to Oregon, but both proposals have been greeted with enthusiasm in states with right-wing governors like Wisconsin, Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky and Maine. The Obama administration previously denied Arizona’s request to put work requirements and lifetime caps on Medicaid members, arguing that they run counter to the program’s mandate to ensure coverage for vulnerable populations.

“That’s the kind of stuff we’re facing,” Greenlick said. “Actions of our federal government take the wheels off our healthcare system.”

The repeal of the individual mandate could spike insurance rates and cause the individual market to eventually collapse, but even without that, prices are already unaffordable for people who do not receive federal subsidies, which disappear as people move up into the middle class. A couple in their 60s making $70,000 can expect to spend 20 percent of their income on health premiums.

The Oregon Republicans opposing the measure said they worried about how Oregon could afford to expand coverage any more, given how much the state leverages from the federal government already to help pay for insurance for the 1 million people on Medicaid and the 156,000 people who have purchased plans on the health insurance marketplace.

It’s unclear if any Republicans will support placing the question before the voters. Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, a candidate for governor, was absent from the Wednesday night vote.

“It seems to me we are putting education and healthcare in a bucket that are competing for dollars,” said Rep. Rich Vial, R-Wilsonville.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, a family physician, rebuffed Vial’s assumption that SJR 203 would lead to a costly bill down the road. “We’re not going to transform over night,” she said. “It will take negotiation with our colleagues in the business community.”

The new director of the Oregon Nurses Association, Martin Taylor, echoed Greenlick’s concerns: “Healthcare has broader coverage than any point in history. There’s this fear -- It all might slip away,” he said. “This is an attempt to say we will not go back to where one in five people do not have coverage.”

The ONA seems poised to lead the campaign at the ballot box if the Legislature passes the resolution, hoping to build on the organizational success of Measure 101, which upheld funding for the Oregon Health Plan with a 62-38 vote. The referral is also a big priority for Health Care for All Oregon, the grassroots organization best known for its support of single-payer health insurance.

Taylor told The Lund Report that he’s confident other members of the healthcare community will lend support to the cause -- assuming it passes the Legislature. “It seems it won’t be ONA by ourselves. We’re ready to make sure the coalition gets stood up, that fundraising will be successful.”

Reach Chris Gray at chris@thelundreport.org.