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Governor visits White City

WHITE CITY — Gov. Ted Kulongoski assured low- and middle-income families Monday that he and lawmakers will continue to work on providing health care to 116,000 uninsured children in the state despite the failure of a funding measure.

Speaking at the nonprofit Community Health Center in White City, the governor said his staff is drafting an administrative rule to expand the eligibility period for children enrolled in the Oregon Health Plan from six to 12 months.

"I'm still 100 percent committed to seeing how we can provide health care to 116,000 children," Kulongoski said. "We also have to see how we can provide health care for their parents."

The change, which would take effect Jan. 1, would allow the plan to serve an additional 20,000 children. The cost is still being evaluated and will be built in the governor's budget request Dec. 1, according to the governor's office.

Peg Crowley, executive director of Community Health Center, praised the extension of the eligibility period.

"Cycling on and off (every six months) isn't healthy for children," Crowley said. "You find a child who needs a mental health intervention, you get them on the Oregon Health Plan, you get their physical needs taken care of and just when we're ready to get them on a mental health program, all of sudden they fall off the health plan and one year to 18 months of work just goes down the drain."

The state Legislature had considered expanding the eligibility period to 12 months during the February special session but at the last minute dropped it because of time and budgetary constraints.

The new push follows the failure of November's Measure 50 cigarette tax, which would have funded expanded health coverage for children.

Health care is also the subject for the seven-member Oregon Health Fund Board, which was appointed by the governor to study ways to make care more affordable and accessible and improve its quality. It will recommend some legislative and administrative changes to that end in November, said state Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland.

"We have to remember uninsured people don't stop getting health care," Bates said. "They just end up in the emergency room at a hugely higher cost than if we had helped provide them with primary and preventative care."

Bates said he expects to propose some kind of sliding scale subsidy plan so that families at 400 percent of the poverty rate or less would be eligible for assistance.

Kulongoski said his health-care priorities include simplifying the application process for the Oregon Health Plan, expanding coverage to all children who are eligible in the 2009-2011 biennium and raising tobacco taxes to help foot the bill.

"Health care has become a luxury for some people," said White City resident Holly Ruddock, whose eighth-grade son, Jessey, has received care for his heart arrhythmia through the Community Health Center. Ruddock said health care has never been affordable for her family and has often been a lower priority when stacked up against mortgage and vehicle payments, fuel costs, electricity and other immediate needs.

The governor is traveling the state this week to outline his various initiatives. Before White City, he stopped in Bend on Monday to talk about solar energy. He heads to Springfield today to discuss transportation.

On the Web: www.governor.state.or.us and www.communityhealthcenter.org

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.

Jessey Ruddock, 13, of White City, listens to Gov. Ted Kulongoski joke about a pedometer the governor’s doctor makes him wear to aid with controlling his high blood pressure. The governor visited the White City Community Health Center Monday to tout health-care initiatives. cq - Jim Craven