Oregon House Sponsors Right to Healthcare Ballot Referral

The House of Representatives voted on party lines to ask voters to amend the constitution to add healthcare to the state bill of rights.

The Oregon House has voted 35-25 to refer a constitutional amendment to the voters this Nov. 6 that would acknowledge a right to affordable healthcare.

House Joint Resolution 203 must now go to the Senate, where it has the strong backing of the majority of the Democratic caucus, but no firm commitment from the party leaders.

Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, has pushed for the so-called “Hope Amendment” for more than 10 years, and has said that Oregon needs to enshrine the right in the state constitution to prevent progress in the healthcare system from being sabotaged by President Trump, and to affirm the commitment of the state’s voters for access to all.

The amendment states: “It is the obligation of the state to ensure that every resident of Oregon has access to cost-effective, medically appropriate and affordable health care as a fundamental right.”

Greenlick said he first introduced the constitutional amendment in 2006, after an oncologist told him he had but six months to live. “If I didn’t have insurance in 2005, I would not be here. I would be dead,” said Greenlick, the longtime chairman of the House Health Committee. “I believe in this room, nobody thinks anyone should be excluded from health insurance.”

The ranking Republican on the House Health Committee, Rep. Cedric Hayden of Cottage Grove, led the opposition, arguing that a constitutional amendment would lead to lawsuits that would force the state to put up millions of dollars to cover the remaining uninsured people -- a liability that would keep the state from spending on education and human services.

“Oregon has not had success in education. We need to make our foster care system a priority,” Hayden said.

“This is a promise we may not be able to keep,” echoed Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn.

Greenlick has said he believes his amendment would be primarily aspirational and would not start any new programs, but it could show popular support for increased access to healthcare.

The state’s uninsured rate is between 4 and 5 percent, although it remains much higher nationally and among certain ethnic groups, particularly Latinos. About 29 percent of Latinos are uninsured nationwide, and half of those are immigrants who are restricted from Medicaid.

Oregon has a higher share of Latinos than the national average as well as a higher share of the so-called Dreamer population, people who came here as children illegally and are now enrolled in a federal program that Trump has tried to end, exposing them to deportation.

Oregon expanded health insurance to unauthorized immigrant children as of Jan. 1, but Dreamers older than 18 do not qualify for this expanded coverage. “We should not turn our backs on Oregonians once they become adults,” said Rep. Susan McLain, D-Forest Grove.

Other groups with high numbers of uninsured include people who work for small employers, almost a quarter of whom go without insurance, according to national surveys from the Commonwealth Fund. Men are slightly more likely than women to be without insurance, as are people under 35 years old. Although rising individual market premiums have made such insurance increasingly expensive for middle-class consumers, the fund found only 2 percent of people who earn too much to qualify for subsidies went uninsured in 2016.

Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, D-Woodburn, who represents the only majority nonwhite district in Oregon, said she wanted to hear from the people of Oregon to find where they stand. “One Oregonian without access to healthcare is one too many in my opinion,” she said.

The amendment has the strong backing of the Oregon Nurses Association, Providence Health & Services and Health Care for All Oregon.

The Republicans are backed in their dissent by the League of Women Voters, which argued that despite supporting the concept of healthcare for all, particularly on a national level, it opposed an Oregon-only approach.

“The League cannot support an amendment for health care as a right because there is an implied state responsibility to provide the health care for all residents. This would commit the State of Oregon to expand funding to include health care coverage for all without the federal partnership. The State of Oregon has insufficient income to support its current responsibilities and cannot provide the added cost of health care coverage for all its residents at this time.”

Reach Chris Gray at [email protected].

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