Search articles

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Health Care for All Oregon: How a Landmark Bill Became Law During the Often Combative 2019 Legislative Session

With the short 2020 legislative session about to begin, it’s a good time to remember one of the surprising successes of 2019. While last year’s session was marred by the cowardly walk-out by Republican lawmakers who could not bring themselves to vote for a cap-and-trade bill in spite of the urgent need to respond to the climate crisis, there was, fortunately, a last-minute, bi-partisan victory for Oregonians.  

Health-care expert and consultant Charles Gallia, who in 2018 was the strong, though ultimately unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Senate District 20, shared the backstory of Senate Bill 770, which establishes a task force on universal health care, with Clackamas County Democrats at a recent Central Committee meeting.

Charles Gallia (center) with Oregon City school board member Anna Farmer and Health Care for All Oregon vice president Valdez Bravo

Health Care for All Oregon, a statewide coalition of over 120 member and endorsing organizations, asked Gallia to help draft the bill. Gallia recalled, “You can imagine the excitement of being asked, ‘so what would you do if you started from scratch to build a system that was going to provide universal access to health care to your neighbors, your family, the next generation.” He turned to the World Health Organization to confirm which issues are key to a successful health care system.  He found that most important were:
  • Improving the health status of individuals, families and communities; 
  • Defending the population against health threats; 
  • Protecting people against the financial consequences of ill health; 
  • Providing equitable access to people-centered care; and, most important in Gallia’s eyes,
  • Making it possible for people to participate in decisions affecting their health and health status.
“Oregon has a culture of leading in certain areas, and health care is one of those areas,” Gallia said. “When we built the Oregon health plan in the first place, decades ago, one of the things we did is travel around the state to many communities, listening to people along with state representatives and senators.  What I learned was a deep appreciation for the values that make Oregon special. People looked ahead and said, we need to be investing in prevention, child care, and we need to be thinking about what contributes to well-being outside the medical setting, and we should have less priority on those higher risk, experimental kinds of surgeries that often don’t result in a prolongation of life, but merely in an extension of someone’s misery.
“So we used the same kind of building blocks for this bill, an opportunity for citizens to engage in controlling their own health care. When I looked at health care in other states, I found that many ended up squaring off with the insurance industry, but we are going to do this the Oregon way, working at the grassroots. 

“Probably the most important of all is that we are not going to send the money back to a private, for-profit company headquartered in some other state, but we are going to retain those earnings and funnel them back to the communities that make the sacrifices needed in order to improve health care and so that we can have a sustainable system. 
Gallia recalled that once SB 770 was drafted, efforts were focused to get the support from key legislators.  He pointed to Sen. James Manning, who represents the 7th district, as vital to the success of the bill. Chances of passing the legislation looked promising. 
“We got a hearing for the first time in the health care committee,” Gallia recounted. “We had a consensus bill from both chambers, the key players involved all said yes, we had a sign-off by the president of the Senate and the Speaker of the House.
“Then the Republicans walked out. On the House side, the Republicans decided they were going to force every bill to be read aloud word-for-word, which is almost as effective a delaying tactic as walking out.
“I was crushed, but when the Republicans came back, I still thought we might have a chance for passage.  I was astounded at how well the two chambers worked together. The members and their staff ushered the bill through three different committee hearings, on the final day before the legislative session closed. In fact, they suspended the rules so they could get this bill passed in the House.  It was such an exciting moment because it was down to the last hour.”
Gov. Brown signed SB 770 into law on July 23, 2019.  The law establishes a task force on universal health care that will, by February 2021, present the design of a Health Care for All Oregon Plan that will provide publicly funded, equitable, affordable, comprehensive, and high quality health care to all Oregon residents.
There’s been a great deal of interest in the task force from a wide group of applicants, according to Tom Sincic, president of Health Care for All Oregon, who adds that the task force “gives the Governor the opportunity to recommend appointments in line with the diverse background and expertise outlined in the bill. It will be the role of HCAO to make sure the voice of communities throughout Oregon are heard when the Task Force starts its public engagement.”
Supporters of universal health care can visit the HCAO website to complete a Statement of Support, so they can be kept up-to-date.