Salem Demonstrators Demand Healthcare Reform

Close to 400 people descended on the state Capitol on April 8 to lobby their legislators and demonstrate for healthcare reform.

April 15, 2009 -- “It’s kind of like the government and the insurance companies get to decide who lives and who dies,” said Judith Auslander, 60, who will lose her eligibility for the Oregon Health Plan in April.

Audio version of this story in cooperation with KBOO Radio 90.7

“I’d like to know what crime I committed to deserve a death sentence because that’s literally what it is. One of the medicines I take costs $1,000 a month,” she said from the Capitol rotunda.

Auslander and close to 400 others who rallied in Salem last week want lawmakers to pass a series of bills that would pave the way for universal coverage in Oregon within four years.

The Service Employees International Union mobilized the lion’s share of citizen lobbyists as part of health care action day. Specifically, they want the legislature to pass House Bill 2009 and a handful of other bills that would reduce costs and expand the Oregon Health Plan. The bills come from recommendations by the Oregon Health Fund Board, which met and traveled the state for the past two years speaking to average Oregonians.

Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D- Portland), who chairs the House Health Care Committee, said the time to act is now. “Rate increases for health insurance, is that a problem? How about making drugs so expensive people can’t afford the medicine they need? Is that a problem? You’re damn right it is,” said Greenlick, rallying the crowd on the Capitol steps.

A recent Families USA study found that 1.1 million Oregonians went without health insurance at some point last year.

The Senate Committee on Health Care and Veterans Affairs has already passed four bills that would save millions of dollars in healthcare costs. One would establish a registry for end-of-life medical orders (Senate Bill 451), while another would promote electronic medical records (SB 452). A third bill (SB 455) aims to improve clinical guidelines and best practices. And the last bill (SB 457) looks at healthcare workforce issues.

“I am cautiously optimistic that we are truly going to have healthcare reform in Oregon,” said Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson (D-Gresham), who chairs the committee.

Increasing the tax on health insurers, hospitals and possibly self-insured employers and union trusts is a top priority of Democratic lawmakers as a way to expand the Oregon Health Plan to 80,000 additional adults and 100,000 children.

Lawmakers want to raise $600 million to generate $1 billion in combined federal matching dollars. But discussions are still ongoing about how to apportion that tax. The AFL-CIO launched a media campaign with radio ads that attacks hospitals for opposing the tax.

Expanding the Oregon Health Plan would help people such as Judith Auslander who desperately needs insurance to pay for expensive medical care. “Basically I have a pre-existing disease, and I need health insurance in order to live so I can have the medications I need to survive. Unless I have a full-time job that provides health insurance, I can’t get my own coverage. I was one of the lucky ones who was chosen for the Oregon Health Plan lottery, which is ridiculous to have a game to get health insurance, but I won.”

By winning the so-called lottery, Auslander was awarded a slot on the Oregon Health Plan a year ago only to lose her eligibility in October because she earns more than the $900 per month threshold to qualify for the Medicaid program. Having run out of appeals, she will lose her coverage at the end of April right about the time of her 60th birthday. Auslander could join the Oregon Medical Insurance Pool which is guaranteed, but she can’t afford the roughly $600 monthly premium. Across the state, more than 22,000 Oregonians, or one-in-five who applied for individual coverage, were rejected by insurers because of pre-existing conditions.

Auslander said her message to legislators is that we need healthcare reform. “We want insurance companies to be taken out of the game, and the power of having healthcare given back to the people. We all deserve the right to healthcare. We need to govern the insurance companies better so they don’t take in tremendous profits while people are dying. It’s wrong.”

Despite the economic crisis, Oregon cannot afford to shy away from healthcare reform, said Betty Johnson with Mid-Valley Healthcare Advocates based in Corvallis.

“This is such a dark time, but on the other hand in times of crisis this is a golden opportunity to take bold initiative,” Johnson said. “We think healthcare is an economic issue and it can be an economic stimulus.”

Charlotte Maloney, a board member of Health Care for All Oregon, said enough money is spent to cover everybody. “Currently we’re spending double what the closest country is spending. If we spent the same amount we’re spending now more efficiently, we could cover everybody.”

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