Supreme Court Orders Cleaner Ballot Title for Measure 101 Healthcare Tax

The court rejected language from Democrats that the bulk of the hospital assessment could go ahead regardless of the outcome of the Jan. 23 election.

The Oregon Supreme Court has laid down the ground rules for Measure 101, the Oregon Health Plan funding referendum, approving much of the suggested title from the Democratic-led ballot committee while demanding some modifications requested from Republicans.

Perhaps most significantly, the court scuttled a creative legal argument that the assessment would be imposed next year regardless of voters’ decision on the Jan. 23 election. Democrats had argued creatively that Republican petitioners had errantly left out a provision from their referendum that would require hospitals to pay an increased tax in 2018 and 2019.

Measure 101 gives voters a chance to sign off on a series of bipartisan taxes on health insurance and hospital services that the Legislature passed this summer, which would continue funding for the Oregon Health Plan, stabilize the health insurance market and provide health insurance for unauthorized-immigrant children and some services for immigrant women.

A No vote would lower group health insurance premiums 1.5 percent while raising individual health insurance premiums 6 percent. It would also throw into doubt the Medicaid coverage of 350,000 poor Oregonians, forcing the Legislature to cut them from care or find a different funding source in February.

The court ordered Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to clean up the ballot title to make it clear that the set of tax assessments that were enacted by the Legislature in June have not yet been collected -- but the court rejected an argument from Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, who also sought to strike language that overturning the Legislature would result in the loss of funding for the Oregon Health Plan.

The legal fight might still continue over whether the hospital assessment can be enacted regardless of the outcome of the January election -- the Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of that argument, but called it speculative and struck it from the statement explaining the ramifications of a No vote.

Both sides gave a positive spin to the court’s decision, with Parrish lauding the “nonpartisan state Supreme Court justices” efforts to stop Democrats from “jerry-rigging” the process.

“This is a huge decision by the court today. The court affirmed nearly 100 percent of our concerns, which the partisan legislative committee completely ignored,” said Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Cottage Grove, in a statement.

“Today the Oregon Supreme Court affirmed that the bi-partisan ballot title committee was substantially accurate in the description of Measure 101,” said Yes for Healthcare spokeswoman Patty Wentz. “The court affirmed that Measure 101 is a temporary assessment, that it funds health care services for low-income individuals and families and that it will stabilize health insurance premiums. In addition, the ruling called for technical fixes to rearrange some language. This is great news and voters have been well-served by this process.”

The ballot title, which was drafted by an unusual special legislative committee, rather than the attorney general, described the assessment as “currently budgeted” without clearly noting that the tax has not started; it also did not clearly show that insurance premiums would rise in the group health insurance market.

Rosenblum was asked to make similar changes to the Yes statement so as not to bury the lead: “We agree that the Yes result statement does not substantially comply with ORS 250.035(2)(b) because it must more prominently, and also accurately, explain the immediate, direct result of voting Yes on RP 301—imposition of the new temporary assessments and insurer authority to increase premiums.”

The court approved the use of the wonky and abstract word “assessments” to refer to the payments insurers and hospitals must make, as opposed to the more visceral “taxes” that Parrish preferred.

Parrish said the next test will be if the Democratic Rosenblum complies with the court’s instructions. “Failure to follow the court’s decision will not only call into question her integrity, it would be a direct affront to Oregonians who expect our elected attorney general to uphold the law.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, continued to express her dismay at the Republicans’ partisan ballot measure and the effects it will have on poor Oregonians. “I can’t help but get disillusioned when we’ve worked so hard,” to expand healthcare access and coverage, she said. If it fails, “I see no other option but taking our expanded Medicaid population off the rolls.”

Monnes Anderson said she had spoken with numerous constituents who had received health insurance for the first time through the Affordable Care Act -- coverage that would be put at risk if Measure 101 is given a No vote.

Parrish and Hayden have argued that they intend to fund the Oregon Health Plan through other tax sources as well as budget cuts in other areas, including public employee health insurance. They’ve been less sympathetic to funding the reinsurance program for the individual health market. Hayden’s tax proposals await a budget score from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Office.

“I haven’t seen any real plan,” Monnes Anderson told The Lund Report. “I think they’re all talk.”

Reach Chris Gray at [email protected].