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State lags on health insurance

Oregon should follow the lead of Vermont and Massachusetts

(Albany) Democrat-Herald

When it comes to solving the health insurance problem, it looks like Oregon has missed the boat in trying to be either innovative or first.

Both Vermont and Massachusetts have enacted laws providing for something close to universal health insurance. Basically, every person is required to have health insurance, employers are required to arrange for group policies, and there are subsidies for those who can't afford the price.

Whether these systems work won't be known for some time. In both states, the new programs will not start until the summer or fall of 2007. But after years of talk, those states actually passed something that looks feasible, at least from afar.

Oregon tried something similar in the 1990s with the Oregon Health Plan. The original version required most employers to provide insurance to complement the public portions of the program. But employers objected and that crucial part of the plan was dropped, leaving only the public aspect, which essentially expanded the Medicaid program.

From published descriptions of the laws enacted by Vermont and Massachusetts, it is hard to tell how they plan to deal with the biggest problem in health care &

8212; the outrageous prices being charged, and the rate of increase in those prices. If we don't solve that problem in the United States, any new insurance scheme will fail sooner or later and leave us in the same old fix. (A doctor sees you for less than five minutes, declares that yes, you've got a problem all right and charges you $193, and everybody accepts that that's how the system works. But we complain loudly about the price of gas!)

In all this, the set of ideas promoted by former Gov. John Kitzhaber still sounds like a new and promising approach. Kitzhaber would have Oregon seek federal law changes to run an experiment: Use all the public money now spent on health care to provide basic coverage for everyone, with companies and individuals free to provide additional coverage on their own if they want.

If it gets the chance, the 2007 Legislature should give this strategy a try.

Vermont and Massachusetts have shown that states don't have to wait for the federal government to tackle this issue. Oregon should follow their example and propose its own approach.