Bates: Health care overhaul needed


Sen. Alan Bates, one of the state Legislature's leading advocates for health care reform, admitted disappointment that a strong majority of Oregon voters rejected a tobacco tax increase to insure children. He was not, however, surprised.

The Ashland Democrat and family physician, who championed efforts to place Measure 50 on the Nov. 6 ballot, said the proposition's resounding defeat perhaps is testament to voters' wariness.

"There is a basic distrust of state government out there, and I think it's based in some pretty good fact," Bates said in a telephone interview Thursday.

Backed by Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski, Measure 50 would have amended the state's constitution to raise the tax on cigarettes by 84.5 cents a pack, to $2.02, beginning Jan. 1, 2008.

Just three Oregon counties voted for the proposal: Multnomah, Wasco and Gilliam. In Jackson County, 65 percent of voters rejected the idea.

Bates said part of the reason the initiative failed such a large margin was because the campaign focused too much energy on going door-to-door and holding town-halls rather than using mass media to reach voters.

"We entering a new era of campaigning, and going door-to-door and brochures is not as effective as they once were," he said, adding that radio, TV, and the Internet is the "new way" to win elections. "We also failed to make our message clear and simple; this was not a complex issue, but we made it a complex issue."

Democrats, Bates said, should have pushed for a health care fund to combat the effects of smoking, he said.

"What I don't know is whether people are saying we don't trust the Legislature, or are they saying they're not interested in piecemeal attempts to fix the health care system?" Bates asked rhetorically.

Asked if he thought that Democrats would push a similar effort to insure low-income children with an increase in the state tobacco tax, Bates said that would be ill-advised.

"I would hope that we wouldn't, but they might," he said of floating a similar proposal in the 2009 legislative session. "When people have spoken this loudly on something &

and this was pretty loud &

it would be silly to bring it up again."

Rather than targeting uninsured low-income children, Bates said he wants the next legislative assembly to send voters a comprehensive proposal to overhaul the state's health care system that would leave every Oregonian with medical coverage.

"We need to make it straightforward: everyone is in, no bits and pieces," said Bates, one of the principal architects of a new law that established the Oregon Health Trust Board, charged with devising a plan for universal access to medical care that will lower health care costs and renew the emphasis on preventive and primary care.

"People want the whole system fixed," Bates said. "We want kids to have health care. We want the 23-year-old to have health care. We want the working guy and gal to have health care."

Democrats, who control both chambers of the state Legislature, were forced to bring the tax increase to the voters in the form of Measure 50 after several attempts to raise the cigarette tax floundered in the House without the necessary Republican votes to pass.

Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, was among the proposals' most ardent critics. He said taxes generated from cigarettes and other tobacco products would be an unreliable revenue source for the program.

In an interview Thursday, Esquivel said he is willing to support the governor's Healthy Kids program, but raising the state tobacco tax is the wrong way to finance "something so important," as children's health care.

"We should all pay for this program, not just a select group of people," Esquivel said. "Rather than sending $270 million to Portland for a light rail we could have funded the program," he added.

Had it passed, Measure 50 would have funneled about $150 million into state coffers in its first year and a half, state economists estimated, to provide free or subsidized health care coverage to 117,000 uninsured children in families of four with annual incomes less than $51,600.

Tobacco giants R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and Philip Morris USA separately formed political action committees to fight the proposal that was backed by a broad coalition of labor unions and health care groups, which outspent supporters by a — to — margin.

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