As Oregon continues to contend with the pandemic, health care workforce shortages, and the impending loss of Oregon Health Plan coverage for hundreds of thousands of people, the state’s next governor will have no shortage of health care crises to tackle.
The Lund Report reached out to top contenders in the 2022 gubernatorial race to see how they’d address the state’s most pressing problems related to health care. Here’s how Democratic candidate and former House speaker Tina Kotek replied to our questions:
What specific policy would you pursue to improve health care for Oregonians?
Oregon families are paying too much for health care. Bringing down costs and improving access to quality care will be a top priority for me. As governor, I will invest in our communities to increase access to affordable health care. I will work to bring down costs for Oregonians by reducing the cost of prescription drugs and ensuring that insurance networks have enough providers to meet the needs of our communities.
Oregon needs to do more to support a diverse health care workforce by increasing compensation for frontline workers, improving access to culturally and linguistically competent providers, and promoting professional development opportunities within diverse communities.
Around the state, Oregonians are searching for care — from mental health to substance abuse treatment to general check ups, and they are struggling to find access. Here’s the truth: Health insurance coverage does not mean anything if you do not have providers in your area who can see you when you’re in need.
That’s why as governor, I will not just work to bring down health care costs, but to also grow our health care workforce to ensure that we have providers in every corner of our state ready to serve our communities. This will include strategic initiatives to increase compensation, lower workloads and simplify career pathways so that we can retain and grow the workforce that our communities are depending on.
Oregon is simultaneously in the midst of addiction and behavioral health system crises. What is your plan for ensuring Oregonians have access to treatment when they need it?
When someone is ready to seek help for a mental health concern or substance abuse, that help should be easy to find and immediately available — no matter where you live or what you can afford. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the need for a stronger, more accessible system of mental health care and substance abuse treatment. In fact, the pandemic made things even more difficult for individuals already receiving care or in recovery. Additionally, the ongoing strain of low pay and high workload for frontline health care workers has created a crisis in the behavioral health workforce.
My number one goal will be to make sure that the money that has already been allocated to provide better access to care is being used effectively and efficiently. As governor, I will make sure that the Oregon Health Authority is held accountable and fulfills the promises of Measure 110 and recent legislative investments to get resources out the door to Oregonians struggling with addiction.
Here are some of the specific solutions that I will prioritize as governor: reducing red tape that makes it harder to find and access care, increasing capacity for inpatient and outpatient care, working to retain and expand our mental health and addiction workforce through increased compensation, lower workloads and simplified career pathways, and ensuring that coordinated care organizations are meeting expectations around mental health access and integration.
What does Oregon need to do to rebuild its public health system — and strengthen it — to address disparities and improve equity?
Health equity and cultural responsiveness are critically important for our public health system to ensure that when an emergency like COVID-19 hits, we have the right people in place to reach every impacted community.
As House speaker, I supported investments for community-based organizations to be a part of our COVID-19 response. While the Oregon Health Authority struggled at times to provide the necessary direction and tools, this powerful network was essential to linking vulnerable communities to education, services and wrap-around support, and it built infrastructure within community organizations that we must maintain. We now have a road map to connect our communities with care and resources. It’s up to the state to continue these partnerships so that our public health infrastructure is strong and ready to respond better to future emergencies.
On a recent trip to southern Oregon, I visited with Unete, an organization in Medford that has provided thousands of COVID-19 vaccines to the Latinx community, especially farmworkers. The team at Unete has been so successful in their outreach efforts because they have the ability to reach into their community and make individuals feel safe and supported. As governor, I will work to ensure that the state is working closely with community partners across the state so that we can reach underserved communities and ensure equitable access to care.
Additionally, we need to continue our progress on public health modernization so that every county in Oregon has the resources at the ready to respond to future public health emergencies.
About 300,000 people must exit the Oregon Health Plan over the coming year because their incomes exceed the threshold, and Oregon is in the early stages of developing a bridge plan to cover a fraction of them — the working poor who make up to twice the poverty level. Do you agree with those who say Oregon needs a more ambitious “public option” plan covering people with incomes four times the poverty level?
Health care is a human right, and it is critical that all Oregonians, regardless of their race, income, or zip code have access to affordable health care. That’s why I led the way as House speaker to protect Cover All Kids and pass Cover All People, landmark laws that dramatically expanded access to health care coverage under the Oregon Health Plan.
I support the effort to bridge the coverage gap for vulnerable Oregonians. I’m pleased that the legislature was able to allocate funding to create a process that will prioritize accountability so we can see swift and comprehensive changes to our program. Still, implementation will be challenging and it will be necessary for the Legislature and the Oregon Health Authority to work together to ensure that we are meeting our bottomline goal: to keep people enrolled in health care. When we are successful in these efforts, Oregon will be much closer to near-universal coverage.
We need to be ambitious about making sure Oregonians in the insurance marketplace are utilizing all possible federal credits by enrolling in the right plan. As governor, I will be focused on bringing the cost of health care down for Oregonians and ensuring Oregonians can access the care they pay for. We need to tackle the affordability of care, and I will explore every option available to me to do this, including a public option.
Oregon’s public health response to the pandemic has been criticized from different perspectives. What is your take on what worked well and what didn’t?
A lot of our friends, family and neighbors are alive and well today because Oregonians followed the science, wore masks and got vaccinated. There was no playbook for how to respond to this crisis, no one had perfect information, and while a lot of the public health measures weren’t easy, we should be proud that Oregon fared better than most of the country.
Our public health system, particularly initially, did not protect ALL Oregonians — we saw that in the pandemic statistics that showed disparate impact. We are better prepared for the next crisis because we have invested in community organizations to reach different communities through trusted communicators. I did not agree with the decision to not prioritize seniors for vaccinations. In the future, we need to have a clearer emergency management plan in place, and that’s why I supported restoring a stand-alone Oregon Department of Emergency Management to clarify the line of command. My hope is that we learn from our response to the pandemic and will be in a better position moving forward.
View responses from other leading gubernatorial candidates in Oregon’s 2022 election here.