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Smith Warner Promotes Public Funding for Healthcare Study

A private study of the best way to provide universal healthcare in Oregon has foundered for lack of funds. The study was sanctioned in 2013 to rely on private funding; with little materializing, legislators such as Sen. Michael Dembrow and Rep. Barbara Smith Warner are asking for an extended deadline and public funding.
January 21, 2015

Two years ago, the Legislature authorized an examination of universal healthcare, but asked the private sector to pick up the tab. That effort foundered when donors -- and dollars -- failed to materialize.

This year, legislators who want to know the best way to expand healthcare access to everyone in Oregon may be ready to fund a study that would examine the options, Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, told the Portland City Club on Monday night.  

“We got it through last time without funding,” Smith Warner said. “We’re going to attempt to get some public financial assistance.”

In addition to providing a relatively small amount of public funding, House Bill 2828 will extend the deadline to raise funds and complete the work, since the original legislation called for the mothballed study to be finished this past November.

Dr. Sam Metz, who led efforts to raise private funds to pay for the study, told The Lund Report that the desired level of state funding had not been worked out, but proponents were shooting for about $100,000, which is roughly half what the study would cost. If the state doesn’t pay the full amount, Metz said he believed Oregon’s down payment could spur private donations this time.

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, authored the 2013 bill that authorized the universal healthcare study, and he crafted the legislation to examine four approaches: single-payer; a full roll out of the Affordable Care Act with the Cover Oregon exchange, including a Basic Health Plan option for low-income families ineligible for Medicaid; a public option sold on the exchange; and a system offering families a private insurance plan with just the essential health benefits.

The study could help solve a hole that has plagued Vermont’s faltered attempt at state-run universal health care, by providing the financing scheme and means of funding such a system.

Metz said he believes that, compared to private insurance, the cost of universal healthcare would likely be cost-neutral or cheaper than what individuals and most businesses are paying now.

“The major obstacle is not moral, it’s not political,” Metz said. “It’s coming up with a financing plan that they believe will work.”

Though Smith Warner led Monday’s City Club discussion, she was not actually around when the Legislature initiated the study; she was appointed in late 2013 to fill the Northeast Portland House seat of now-Sen. Dembrow, the Legislature’s champion of single-payer health insurance. Dembrow passed the baton to Smith Warner on the study bill, but with or without the study, he will once again be introducing legislation to bring single-payer to Oregon with a separate bill that stands little chance of passing.

Her landslide election to a seat she was first appointed to fill has seemed to have given Smith Warner a growing confidence on the stump, and she told the friendly crowd at the City Club that she had just won the support that day for the study bill from Rep. Betty Komp, D-Woodburn.

The Komp endorsement could very well be the coup that pushes House Bill 2828 through the Legislature. The Woodburn legislator and retired educator is known as a no-nonsense veteran with considerable behind-the-scenes clout within her caucus. Komp holds a key position on the budget committee and previously served as House Speaker Pro Tempore.

Dembrow’s predecessor bill from 2013 -- House Bill 3260 -- attracted support from nine Republicans, including Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, partly because Dembrow drafted the bill to allow for an open-ended, comprehensive study that asks researchers to compare multiple possibilities, rather than to simply look into how a single-payer system would work in Oregon.

One member of the audience, Dr. Mike Huntington, said that he wanted that big-tent approach continued, with messages tailored to people of different political persuasions. Single-payer supporters often speak very dismissively of the reforms in the Affordable Care Act, which he said may be unwise. “I think we have to be very careful that we don’t over-emphasize the negatives of the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “You’ve got to know your audience.”

One Democrat who opposed HB 3260, Rep. Brent Barton of Gladstone, told The Lund Report he didn’t like that it was privately funded, which may mean he’ll come on board for the 2015 bill.

Metz noted that while the United States is the only industrialized nation without a guarantee of universal healthcare, each country does it differently, providing many different models for a workable system that the study would analyze.

“It’s not all socialized medicine. They all do it differently,” he said. “Some have private insurance companies, though they little resemble the ones we have here.”

Chris can be reached at [email protected].