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Health-care initiative launched

Three Oregon legislators, including Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, want voters to direct the Legislature to expand health care

Voters may get a chance in the November 2006 election to tell the Oregon Legislature to do something about health care.

An initiative petition drafted by three state legislators, including Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, would make access to health care a basic right for all Oregonians and direct the Legislature to adopt a plan to expand health care.

Bates said Thursday that he agreed to co-sponsor the initiative with Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, and Sen. Ben Westlund, R-Bend, because of the Legislature's pathetic performance on health-care issues during the 2005 session.

This will force the Legislature to deal with health care, Bates said.

The proposal would add language to the state constitution that declares health care an essential safeguard of human life and dignity and recognizes the state's obligation to ensure that every Oregon resident has access to effective and affordable health care as a fundamental right.

— The initiative does not define access to health care, but it directs the Legislature to develop a plan that will, among other things, conserve and strengthen the existing health care system, including the Oregon Health Plan. It would also direct the Legislature to maximize the use of Medicaid, Medicare and other federal health care programs in a plan that would have to be completed by July 1, 2009.

Maribeth Healey, executive director of Oregonians for Health Security, said as many as 600,000 Oregonians have no health insurance, and 600,000 more get health care through the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs.

The Secretary of State's office has certified the initiative and assigned it the number 40 for the 2006 general election. Petitioners and their supporters would need to gather signatures of 100,840 registered voters to put it on the ballot.

Bates said Thursday that gathering signatures should not be a problem because health care is at the top of issues that concern Oregonians. He noted that many working people who have health insurance as a benefit worry about losing it, and working people who don't have it worry about how to get it.

I think people will sign it, said Gwen Dayton, interim president of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems. Those are things that everybody is for.

Dayton said the initiative could be a useful tool for involving voters in the conversation about how to change health care.

It will be an opportunity for the people to speak, she said. It'll be interesting to see the progress of the campaign.

Crafting a new plan that actually expands and improves health care would be the real test, Dayton said. As with most things in health care, the devil's in the details. What does it mean to provide access, or to care for the uninsured?

Bates said people who have health insurance already pay for caring for the uninsured through rising health insurance premiums. He said studies indicate the average insured family pays an additional &

36;1,200 in health insurance premiums per year to cover costs that hospitals cannot recover.

Healey said the initiative stands a good chance of passing if it qualifies for the ballot, in part because it does not call for any major, specific changes.

It's just deciding health care is a right and leaving it up to the Legislature. It's not (something controversial) like capping the price of prescription drugs.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492, or e-mail Health-care initiative launched "bkettler@mailtribune.com.