Senators pair up on insurance


After holding dozens of town-hall meetings, spending hours poring over statistics and many evenings in negotiations, state Sen. Alan Bates is now scurrying to present lawmakers his plan to ensure that every Oregonian has access to medical care.

The Ashland Democrat has had lengthy discussions with physicians, patients, insurers, industry leaders and policymakers, and now it is time, in the waning days of the legislative session, for the full Senate to consider the universal health care proposal that he and Democratic state Sen. Ben Westlund of Tumalo have developed.

The two political allies say their bill is a prescription for a healthier Oregon, but equally passionate detractors discount their efforts, saying that the proposal would merely commission yet another study to tell lawmakers what many Oregonians already know: That the health care system is broken.

Their proposal will provide a road map to universal health care coverage, Bates said, a primary care physician who before being elected to the state Legislature served on the landmark panel that developed the blueprint for what later became the Oregon Health Plan, which provides insurance to the poor.

"We're going to be out of here by July 1," Bates said of the Legislature adjourning. "I am a little concerned that we're not going to be able to get the bill over to the House soon enough."

Senate Bill 329 would establish a state-run insurance entity, overseen by a new seven-member regulatory board, the Oregon Health Trust, to establish, among other things, the benefits package and the amount the system will pay physicians and other care providers.

The board would report to the 2009 Legislature with its recommendations.

Under the Bates-Westlund plan, Oregonians, including the 640,000 uninsured, would have access to medical care. Insurance premiums, they said, would be less expensive for business owners to purchase for their employees, and doctors would provide low-cost preventive care rather than performing costly high-tech procedures because patients lacked treatment early on.

"Any way you slice it, this is a crisis of enormous ethical and economic proportions," Westlund said in an interview Tuesday. He added that he is "very optimistic" that their proposal will clear the Senate today with support from Republicans.

"The crisis in health care costs and health care quality is not a partisan issue," Westlund said. "If we don't do something there are going to be two categories of people with health insurance: the very, very wealthy and the very, very poor."

Bates is quick to point out that the pair is not trying to bring Canadian-style socialized medicine to Oregon; it is not a single-payer system they seek.

As for the cost, Bates has said taxpayers are already paying for the uninsured in the form of expensive emergency room visits and late-stage treatment for diseases that could have been treated earlier more inexpensively or altogether prevented.

At Ashland Community Hospital, for instance, 5 percent of those admitted to the hospital are self-paying and likely uninsured, compared to 18 percent in the emergency room, according to spokeswoman Carolyn Johnson.

Among area legislators who have voiced support for the plan: Republican Reps. Sal Esquivel and George Gilman of Medford; Bill Garrard of Klamath Falls; and Democrat Peter Buckley of Ashland.

Republican state Sen. Doug Whitsett of Klamath Falls, however, voted against the bill in committee.

A separate health care overhaul before the state Legislature was introduced by the Archimedes Movement, led by former Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, also a physician.

Senate Bill 27 would pool state and private money with federal Medicare payments, making the proposal more difficult to enact because using money from seniors and the disabled would take an act of Congress.

Dr. John Moorhead, past president of the Oregon Medical Association, said he would like to see the Bates-Westlund proposal and Kitzhaber's plan go forward in tandem.

"Both bills, as a package, need to come out of (the Legislature), so we can get everyone in the system," including seniors, Moorhead said.

Then, in two years, the plans' architects can bring forth a "definitive proposal," he added.

covers the state Legislature for the Ashland Daily Tidings. You can reach him at

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