Voters will decide next year whether to enshrine a right to health care in the Oregon Constitution.
But exactly what the impact of that vote will be is anybody’s guess.
Supporters say the ballot measure calls for an ideological change and wouldn’t alter any existing systems. But opponents say it could carry serious costs.
The state House of Representatives approved Senate Joint Resolution 12 in May, ensuring a ballot measure will be put before voters in the 2022 general election.
If voters say “yes,” they will have gained “access to cost-effective, clinically appropriate and affordable health care as a fundamental right,” according to the text of the bill.
SJR 12 goes on to say that the state’s obligation must be “balanced against the public interest in funding public schools and other essential public services.”
Scott Perkins, of Glendale, is the Douglas County representative of Health Care for All Oregon, a group that has long fought for universal health care in the state.
He sees the ballot measure as an ideological move and doesn’t think approving it would necessarily do much more than change some language in the Constitution.
However, Perkins said he thinks existing health care systems need to change, and he’d like to see what he called an Oregon Health Plan for All system.
Under the current system, employers have to provide health insurance for their employees and it’s a massive cost, he said. Employers end up having to pay for expensive health care coverage for full-time employees or split the work up between part-time employees.
That can result in employees having to take on multiple jobs to make ends meet, he said.
Skyrocketing insurance costs can also force mass layoffs to mitigate the cost.
“I’ve seen it basically damage local economies and the availability of jobs for mostly rural residents,” he said.
If health care is really treated as a human right, it might be subsidized through taxes, he said.
That would shift the responsibility for paying health care costs from employers to taxpayers, with higher income earners shouldering more of the burden, he said.
He also disagrees with the practice of charging deductibles or co-pays on top of a monthly premium.
“Insurance companies still don’t pay the full price of potentially lifesaving medical costs, putting people in debt for the rest of their lives. It’s to me simply asinine and frankly evil,” he said.
Health care isn’t a product stocked on store shelves, he said.
“It’s the prevention of disability and it’s wrong to separate people by how much money they have as far as whether they’re going to become disabled or not and how long they’re going to live,” he said.
State Rep. Gary Leif, R-Roseburg, said he voted against SJR 12 because it could either put other state programs at risk or lead to a tax increase to fund health care programs.
He said the potential impact isn’t fully understood and it would be hard for the state to get out of it.
“SRJ 12 does not do a single thing to provide health care coverage to Oregonians, but would impose a risky obligation to the state,” he said.
Leif also pointed to a Legislative Counsel Opinion submitted into the record by state Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Fall Creek.
That opinion said the measure could lead to lawsuits from individuals against the state if it fails to provide access to health care.
It also said the measure could potentially lead to the Legislature requiring county governments to establish and maintain health care delivery systems, from providing clinics to distributing free medications.
However, the state would probably need to provide funding to those counties for the new programs.
Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman said it’s not clear to him what it would mean to have a constitutional right to health care.
“Already nobody can be denied health care,” he said. “Every person that presents at the hospital regardless of their status — immigration status, financial status — anybody who shows up at the hospital receives health care,” he said.
He said that’s the most expensive and inefficient way to deliver health care though. Freeman said when he was a state legislator, he worked on health care issues because of that problem.
“You wait for people that have an ear infection to get so bad that they show up in the emergency room in the middle of the night, you’re spending a fortune providing a service. You could have given that same person antibiotics two weeks earlier for a fraction of the cost,” he said.
The Oregon Health Plan was designed to lower that cost, he said.
But if access means creating a health care system for everyone that’s run by the state, Freeman thinks that’s a bad idea.
“I do think access to health care is an important issue and that we all collectively should work on it, I just don’t know that we should hand everything over to the state,” he said.
Making a constitutional right to health care could be a slippery slope, Freeman said.
“What’s next, housing? And beyond that what’s the next thing? And all of a sudden the idea of individual freedom and individual decision-making and consequences sort of goes out the window,” he said.