Yes On Measure 101 Campaign Tries to Capture Grassroots Energy

Democrats hope to channel anger among left-leaning voters to support Obamacare at the ballot box while Republicans hope concerns over mismanagement at the Oregon Health Authority causes voters to reject a set of taxes on hospital claims and insurance premiums.

The Yes on Measure 101 campaign rallied its troops this weekend in Eugene and Portland, braving the cold and rain to canvass thousands of homes to support the Oregon Health Plan.

“I think getting our coalition assembled is absolutely critical,” said Chris Wig, the chairman of the Lane County Democratic Party and a leader of the campaign in Eugene. “Our side has more people but our own people don’t vote as often.”

The regular Democratic party organization was joined by labor groups, community activists and new grassroots upstarts such as Indivisible and Our Revolution, the group aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Democrats in other states have seen a wave of energy since their surprise defeat to Donald J. Trump in last year’s presidential election. The Jan. 23 election provides an opportunity not only to channel that energy toward the ballot box in Oregon to keep Obamacare alive but to get these groups working together for next fall’s gubernatorial campaign, and to heal the bitter divide between Sanders’ idealistic supporters and more traditional Democratic voters who backed Hillary Clinton.

The stakes are high. The hospital and insurance taxes amount to $250 million in the next biennium, but those funds would be to bring in $750 million in federal dollars, so if Measure 101 fails, the state would be out a cool $1 billion.

Without the package, the 350,000 people access the Oregon Health Plan thanks to the Medicaid expansion would lose their insurance, and a reinsurance plan that’s been implemented to stabilize the individual health insurance market would falter leave cause consumers to pay on average $300 more for their insurance next year, a figure that would likely rise in 2019.

Malena Mallard, a Eugene resident who was uninsured before receiving the Oregon Health Plan through Obamacare, arrived at the rally after seeing a post on Facebook. She said she was unaware of the details of Measure 101, but soon saw that she’d be among the first to lose her health insurance if the state cuts Medicaid funding.

“Every Oregonian deserves healthcare when they need it at a price they can afford,” said Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene.

Republican opponents, led by Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, argue that they would work to save the Oregon Health Plan in February --  but the funding package put together in Measure 101 took months to hash out, and next year’s session would likely be a chaotic five weeks if suddenly $1 billion were on the line. Republicans have also been ambivalent about salvaging Obamacare’s private insurance market.

Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, has argued the taxes for the reinsurance program throw good money at a failing system, while Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Cottage Grove, has said he would support the program so long as its funding was not commingled with the Medicaid funding, since it could be subsidized with money geared to insure the poor and disabled. The tax on insurance policies actually generates more money than it needs and the state plans to use the excess dollars on Medicaid programs.

The Measure 101 campaign has been dogged by mismanagement at the Oregon Health Authority, highlighted by a recent audit from Republican Secretary of State Dennis Richardson. But the amount of waste cited -- $74 million -- is a fraction of the $1 billion needed to keep the program going at its current levels.

“I don’t think [the audit is] going to affect us as OHA works on fixing waste and efficiency,” said Patty Wentz, the spokeswoman for the Yes for Healthcare campaign, who worked as the OHA communications director under Bruce Goldberg. “We need to protect one in four Oregonians who are on the Oregon Health Plan.”

Wentz highlighted that much of the waste was revealed voluntarily from the new OHA director, Pat Allen, who has been brought in to help the government come clean about the degree of problems that have plagued the agency for the past several years.

Dr. Moxie Loeffler, a primary care physician who has worked in several other states, said that Oregon’s coordinated care reforms have helped the delivery system become more efficient in a way that also helps her patients.

She said earlier in her career, she treated an uninsured taxi driver at the emergency room who almost died because of a burst appendix. Now, under Oregon’s reforms, she was able to get an overweight patient to lower his blood sugar by two-thirds through coordinated care. A second patient with hemorrhoids found she had rectal cancer and is now on a path to recovery.

“I think Oregon saved these patients,” Loeffler said. “I just work here.”

Reach Chris Gray at [email protected].

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