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Oregon Lawmakers Weigh Health Care Changes As Coronavirus Hits

Oregon State Capitol in Salem. | RENAUDE HATSEDAKIS
March 22, 2020


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Oregon’s health care system faces an unparalleled threat in its fight against coronavirus.

The war is waged on different fronts. For one, thousands of laid-off people will lose their health insurance and need coverage, likely through Medicaid. For another, the health care system itself needs to ramp up its ability to treat Oregonians with personnel and beds.

Gov. Kate Brown and lawmakers are drawing up early battle plans intended to cut through red tape, remove barriers to coverage and keep health care workers on the front lines. The task is daunting. Officials need to find ways to keep Oregonians covered with health insurance in the worst economic freefall since the Great Recession and beef up the state’s health care system to treat patients in the fight of their lives. 

Brown requested a Medicaid waiver on Friday to delay all income verifications until after the state of emergency is lifted. That will allow people to submit their income information, which officials will verify after the crisis. 

“In the middle of a pandemic, we want to do our best to ensure that there are not gaps in people’s insurance coverage so they can get the medical treatment they need,” Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said in an email. 

Legislative actions are needed to face the crisis. Lawmakers are expected to meet for a special session in a week or two. 

Lawmakers on the joint committee tasked with the COVID-19 response are planning the broad contours of what is necessary. The committee met Friday and had an initial discussion about health care needs in the future. 

There are no bills yet, but there are broad concepts about what’s needed for temporary relief during the next 90 days. For example, one bill would help Oregonians keep coverage. It would enact a  grace period for non-payment of insurance premiums that lasts for the duration of the emergency declaration. It would require insurers to accept payment plans without imposing fees or penalties. 

Nothing is set in stone, and lawmakers have ideas that could build on to this concept. But urgency is high.

“People will be losing their health insurance all over the place,” said Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, also chairwoman of the House Health Care Commitee. 

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, suggested lawmakers could look into ways to give incentives to help employers keep workers on insurance plans even after they’ve been laid off. 

“It may be less expensive for us to help support employers that way” instead of the influx of people signing on to the Oregon Health Plan, she said. 

Another item on the table is putting a so-called “any willing provider” provision in place that would eliminate  the out-of-network status for patients who need care and providers seeking reimbursement. Under the proposal, this would be applied to all medical care tied to COVID-19. 

Salinas said it’s important to ensure that “it really is equitable throughout the payer system.”

To bolster the health care workforce, ideas include opening the workforce to out-of-state licensed medical professionals without requiring an Oregon license.

Steiner Hayward said it’s important to remember that different states have different requirements. She was not opposed to the idea, but urged lawmakers to tread carefully. 

“We just have to be very careful we aren’t putting Oregonians at risk” she said, adding that it should be limited to the duration of the emergency. 

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