Is health care a right? Oregon voters will decide
Northwest Portland's Mitch Greenlick may achieve in death what he was unable to do during his 17 years in the Oregon House.
A vote in the House cleared the way for Oregon voters to decide in November 2022 whether health care should be considered a right in the Oregon Constitution. The House passed Senate Joint Resolution 12 on a 34-23 vote along party lines on Wednesday, May 19. The resolution does not require the governor's signature.
Greenlick, a Portland Democrat, was in his ninth and final term when he died a year ago at age 85. As leader or co-leader of the House Health Care Committee for more than six cycles, going back to 2007, he sponsored and the House passed similar resolutions four times. All of them died in the Senate, although his final attempt had reached the full Senate before the Legislature abruptly adjourned its 2020 regular session after Republican walkouts.
"This is not the first version of this that you tried," Rep. Rob Nosse, a Portland Democrat who joined the Health Care Committee upon his appointment to the House in 2015, said during the debate.
"Passage of this resolution and hoped-for passage on the ballot in the fall of 2022 is an awesome legacy to your work. Each of us knows that access to quality and affordable health care is a basic human need for all the people of this state. It is a need that is worthy of being a right in our state Constitution."
Nosse was the lead House sponsor and Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, was the lead Senate sponsor. Her district includes Greenlick's former district in Northwest Portland and Northeast Washington County.
Private right to sue
Greenlick came to Oregon in 1964 to start and later direct the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research. He became a vice president of Kaiser Foundation Hospital in 1981. He became a professor and chairman of public health and preventive medicine at Oregon Health & Science University from 1990 until he was elected to the House in 2002.
The proposed constitutional amendment also says this: "The obligation of the state … must be balanced against the public interest in funding public schools and other essential public services, and any remedy arising from an action brought against the state to enforce the provisions of this section may not interfere with the balance described in this subsection."
Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, said the amendment would not compel legislators to support health care spending at the expense of state aid to public schools and other state services.
"The resolution is in no way prescriptive in how the Legislature gets from here to there," Salinas said.
But Rep. Cedric Hayden of Lowell, the top Republican on the Health Care Committee, said he believes the constitutional amendment would open state government to lawsuits.
"It is no longer something that every resident of Oregon would have no right of action — they do," Hayden, a dental surgeon, said. "It is no longer something that would not put pressure on all of our other budgets.
"I do not believe that our schools, our students and our parents have a private right of action to sue the state to make sure their school gets funded appropriately. If people feel that public safety in their county or city is not up to a standard that it should be, they do not have a private right of action to sue the state that it is funded."
He estimated that it would cost up to $4 billion for state-supported insurance coverage to reach everyone under the Oregon Health Plan, which is jointly funded by federal and state governments.
Oregon's uninsured adults are estimated at 6% of the population. Most children are now covered.
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby said passage of the constitutional amendment could compel legislators to put health care spending ahead of other programs.
"Either this is aspirational — and we should vote on it today as such, but not send it to voters to enshrine it in our Constitution — or it is an obligation of the state," she said. "If it is an obligation of the state and does nothing and costs us nothing, there is no value in it.
"Be prepared to say no to other things, because otherwise it is pointless."
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