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Bates' primary aim remains health care

Capitol Correspondent


Sitting behind his cluttered desk in the state Capitol, state Sen. Alan Bates takes yet another telephone call from a noble cause trying to get a piece of the state's record budget surplus.

This time it is Arnie Green of Medford. Green, the executive director of Community Works, is worried that funding he needs to help homeless and runaway youths in the Rogue Valley won't make it into the state budget. Green makes his case, almost pleading for help; Bates asks probing questions and assiduously takes notes.

Bates, who as majority whip is the fourth most powerful member of the Senate, tells him, "I'll see what we can do."

The call ends and Bates lets out a deep sigh. The 61-year-old Democrat seems eager to set budget matters out of his mind, if only for a moment, and talk instead about his passion: health care.

He recited a litany of grim statistics: More than 650,000 Oregonians lack health insurance, and the number of uninsured is increasing each month. Health care costs have risen 73 percent in the last six years. The United States spends twice as much as the rest of the world on health care and people in other industrialized nations are still healthier than Americans are.

"This is a moral crisis we're in," said Bates, a family physician and former chief of medicine at Rogue Valley and Providence medical centers. "What we're trying to do is give everyone access to health care and bring the costs of health care down."

He continues for fifteen minutes, detailing how small businesses can no longer afford to insure their employees, how large companies are struggling to provide health care benefits, and how thousands of working-class Oregonians are going without basic medical care because of skyrocketing insurance premiums.

Then, Tyler Reich, his bright-eyed chief of staff, interrupts, reminding him he needs to be on the Senate floor for a vote. Bates was off and running, in his typical frenetic style.

Dubbed "Doc Bates" by his colleagues, Alan Bates is a physician first, a state senator second; and someone who, in many ways, just after six years in legislature, has secured his place in the annals of Oregon history.

He is the man who before running for the legislature, served on the landmark panel that developed the blueprint for what became the Oregon Health Plan, which provides health care benefits to the poor.

More recently, Bates is involved in something far more reaching: offering all Oregonians access to health care, and not relying on new taxes to do so.

The plan, developed with Democratic state Sen. Ben Westlund of Tumalo, would pool public and private dollars currently spent on health care to establish a state-run insurance entity, overseen by a new regulatory agency.

Jackson County Commissioner David Gilmour, a Democrat, supports their efforts. He said, "The closer we get to universal health care the better."

Gilmour, a Central Point physician, said it is "incredible" that one minor illness or short hospitalization is enough to put many working families into bankruptcy. "More and more people are falling through the cracks," he said.


Bates and Westlund serendipitously embarked on health care reform after serving together in 2003 on a House committee charged with overhauling the Oregon Health Plan in the wake of a crippling recession. Then, Westlund was a Republican and chairman of the panel.

During those hearings, Bates noticed that Westlund had a persistent cough, and urged him to get a flat screen chest x-ray, which ultimately led doctors to a malignant tumor on Westlund's left lung. Westlund's cancer was successfully treated and remains in remission.

"Here, while I'm working my fingers to the bone to save health care for a 100,000 Oregonians, unbeknownst to me I have my own health care challenge," suffering with a partially collapsed left lung, said Westlund, who credits Bates with saving his life.

"Let me say without reservation or hesitation that Alan Bates is one of the finest human beings I've ever met, and one of the finest legislators that has ever walked in that fancy alabaster building in Salem," said Westlund, a Bend-area businessman who ran for governor as an Independent in 2006.

"For Alan Bates, it's a personal as well as a professional crusade; for me, it's a calling having traveled the very difficult trail of my own personal crisis," Westlund said of their efforts.

Maria Underwood knows all too well the plight of the uninsured. She is the development director for La Clinica del Valle, which provides medical and dental care to Jackson County's poor. Last year, of the 13,309 patients that the clinic served at its six sites, 52 percent had no health care coverage, up seven percent since 2001.

Interested parties

John Moorhead, of the Oregon Medical Association, has been a part of the months-long negotiations among lawmakers, doctors, insurers and patient advocates. He said while "significant progress" has been made, some details have yet to emerge.

"We are all motivated by the total belief that the system is broken," said Moorhead, a Portland emergency room physician and past president of the OMA. He expects legislation to emerge during the 2009 session, after the parties are able to forge a compromise.

James Carlson, executive director of the Oregon Health Care Association, is more optimistic. He said there is a "good likelihood" an overall framework for universal coverage will come forward this session.

The Bates-Westlund plan is not without its critics. John Charles, executive director of the libertarian Cascade Policy Institute, said if there is anything to be learned from Medicare and the Canadian experience with socialized medicine, it's that the more centralized health care is the more bureaucratic and expensive it becomes.

Bates, who calls himself a social liberal and a fiscal conservative, strikes Charles as more of an ideologue than a centrist. Charles said he's been shocked recently by what he calls Bates' temerity in advancing the Democratic leadership's agenda, even at his district's expense.

He points to a recent vote on the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee in which Bates supported a proposal floated by Gov. Ted Kulongoski that would require than a quarter of new electricity produced in the state come from renewable sources by 2025.

In Ashland and Eugene, Charles said, ratepayers can pony-up to buy more costly renewable energy, but just a quarter of one percent of Ashland customers pay a premium to get their electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar. In Eugene, he said, the number of customers buying renewable-generated power has been declining for four years.

"If you can't hype that idea in Ashland or Eugene, that says something," Charles said of getting consumers in progressive enclaves to use green power. "Sen. Bates struck me as smart and reasonable; maybe I was na&

239;ve to think he would be a swing vote?"

An enviable resume

Bates has an enviable resume: He has a medical degree from the Kansas City College of Osteopathic Medicine. He spent one tour of duty in Viet Nam. In addition, Gov. Neil Goldschmidt appointed him in 1989 to the Oregon Health Services Commission, which designed the Oregon Health Plan.

In 1990, Bates said he entered politics "frustrated" with the direction that public schools were headed. He won a seat on the Eagle Point school board where he continued to serve for nearly a decade.

Bates said it seemed natural to run for the state legislature in 2000, after term limits forced Rep. Judy Uherbelau, a Democrat, out of the House seat she had held for three terms.

Even with a slight Democratic advantage among registered voters, Republican strategists were eyeing the Ashland House District, which had a history of vacillating between electing Democrat and Republican legislators.

In what became one of the costliest House races that year, Bates beat out Republican Jane Hunts with nearly 60 percent of the vote, making him the only Democrat elected that year in southern Oregon.

Then, in 2004, Bates decided to run for the state Senate after Republican Lenn Hannon landed a seat the state parole board and Sal Esquivel, appointed by county commissioners to fill out Hannon's term, decided to run instead for the politically safer Medford House seat, which had higher Republican numbers.

The race, which pitted Bates against Republican businessman Jim Wright of Medford, is remembered well for its maliciousness, after the Salem-based Leadership Fund painted Bates as a deadbeat dad in two flyers the group mailed to voters detailing a 20-year-old child custody battle Bates had with his ex-wife.


To those who work closest with him, Bates is a quiet energetic man, with a temperament more of a doctor than a politician.

Cathy Shaw, his long-time campaign manager and former chief of staff, jokes that while Bates doesn't himself have ulcers, he's a carrier. "He is like the Energizer Bunny," said Shaw, who was mayor of Ashland from 1989 through 2000.

In addition to making the 240-mile commute to Salem every week, she said, Bates manages to work on his eight-acre hay ranch outside of Ashland, and maintain an active practice in Medford. His wife, Dr. Holly Easton, is also a family practitioner.

"He has such a full plate, and loves all the work he's doing," Shaw said.

Bates defies easy characterization, said Shaw, author of the definitive university text on running local political campaigns.

Bates, she said, is in lockstep with his caucus when it comes to core Democratic issues like civil rights and a woman's access to abortion, but he parts company with most of his caucus, when it comes to his desire to reform the state's tort laws and restructure PERS, the state's public employee pension fund.

"Lenn Hannon was the kind of Republican that southern Oregon likes," Shaw said, "and Alan Bates is the kind of Democrat southern Oregon likes &

maverick and free-thinking."


Kari Chisholm, publisher of the left-leaning blog Blue Oregon, called Bates a "thoughtful and innovative policy leader" who appears "happy to take on the big challenges," such as health care reform.

"This is clearly part of a movement in Oregon and across the country to deal with the most important challenge facing our state and the country," said Chisholm, a Democratic media strategist.

Lobbyist John Carlson said in the 20 years that he has worked with the state Legislature Bates is one of the lawmakers whom he's "most enjoyed working with and getting to know." "Heck, if I could afford to live in Ashland, I would have him as my primary care physician in a heartbeat," said Carlson, who represents nursing homes and other long-term care providers.


Though Bates may be a hero to many health care advocates, recently he's drawn the ire of environmentalists who once counted him among their own. At the center of controversy is Bates' suggestion that lawmakers open Oregon forestlands to logging.

Rather than have the federal government oversee 2.4 million acres of former Oregon and California Railroad land, Bates would rather see the state forester manage the OC timberlands. A modest increase in logging, he argues, could be a boon for cash-strapped rural counties, including Jackson and Josephine counties. "There is a middle road that is the right way to go," Bates said.

Dominick Della Sala, director of the Ashland office of the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy, said Bates' proposal does not "bode well" for his environmental record.

"He is solid on a lot of other (environmental) issues, which is why this has us so troubled," said Della Sala, who worries that Bates might be "abandoning" his environmentally conscious voter base. "What we need to do is come-up with is a solution that doesn't make us choose between preservation of old growth forests and keeping the counties in business."

Since 1937, counties have received federal dollars to backfill what they lose in property taxes since the lands are under federal control. The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the lands, splits with the counties the revenue it receives from logging. According to BLM, 16 percent of OC lands are in Jackson County.

After logging in Oregon slowed and counties' logging payments dwindled with the passage of the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, Congress approved The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act in 2000 to compensate counties for lost revenues. That law expires June 30, potentially leaving 18 western Oregon counties in financial ruin.

Jackson County Commissioner David Gilmour agrees there is some middle ground. He said Bates' idea is "worth taking a look at," especially since the $23 million that Jackson County receives annually from Congress is uncertain.

"We need to find an alternative," Gilmour said. "We are this terrible situation; we're running out of money."

The OC controversy aside, Ivan Maluski of the Sierra Club said Bates can help shore up his environmentalist bona fides by supporting legislation that would reduce pollution in the state's waterways and eliminate an exemption to the state's air quality regulations for factory farming operations, including large dairies.

"The Oregon Department of Forestry is really out of step with the public when it comes to protecting Oregon's last old growth forests," Maluski said.

Asked what has disappointed him during his time in Salem, Bates said unequivocally it's that there are so many Oregonians who lack adequate health care.

"We have been able to maintain a good quality of life in Oregon, protecting the environment," he said. "But we haven't been able to offer universal access to health care or a high quality education at a reasonable cost."