State's health exchange grant in danger

SALEM — A $48 million grant from the federal government to help Oregon create a health insurance exchange is endangered, and some Democrats say it's because of Republican opposition to the federal health care overhaul.

The budget has set a deadline of Tuesday to post a bill that would formally apply for the money, and Republicans and Democrats had not agreed Monday to let it happen. Oregon's Medicaid system was one of seven in the U.S. to be selected for grants to create insurance exchanges that could be models for other states.

An exchange would help connect individuals and small businesses with health insurance and determine whether people qualify for federal subsidies under the health care overhaul signed last year by President Barack Obama.

Democrats blame Republicans on the committee for tying up the money because they oppose the federal legislation.

"I think the only reason it would be rejected is political," said Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat who serves as one of three co-chairmen of the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the budget.

Republicans say they're concerned about the state's record of managing complex information technology projects, including a recent struggle to create a statewide radio communication network for first responders. The project has been criticized as mismanaged and over budget.

Rep. Dennis Richardson, a Central Point Republican who is the budget committee's only GOP co-chairman, said opposition to the health care overhaul had nothing to do with the hang-up over accepting money.

"I'm limiting my considerations to the budget and the proper use of taxpayer funds, whether they're state or federal," Richardson said.

The federal health care overhaul requires all states to create an insurance exchange or allow the federal government to do it for them. Proponents of a state-specific exchange say Oregon should have an approach tailored to its specific needs rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all exchange from the federal government.

In Oklahoma, concerns among Republicans that an exchange would help implement the federal health care overhaul led GOP Gov. Mary Fallin to reject her state's $55 million federal grant.

Buckley, Richardson, and the third co-chairman, Democratic Sen. Richard Devlin, all must sign off for a bill to be posted to the Ways and Means Committee.

The state Senate voted 24-5 on Monday to create the exchange, sending the bill to the House. The bill, SB 99, does not have funding attached.

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