By Kellen Bulger
A proposed bill was passed in Oregon’s House of Representatives last week that would amend the state’s 160-year-old Constitution to read: “It is the obligation of the state to ensure that every resident of Oregon has access to effective, medically appropriate, and affordable health care as a fundamental right.”
Here is a look at what this proposed amendment would actually mean in practice.
The enshrinement of a statute within the state’s Constitution that guarantees healthcare as a right to every Oregonian could certainly provide residents with grounds to sue the state on. If any resident were denied coverage or unable to receive appropriate medical services within the state they could potentially sue the state saying that it failed to provide a constitutional right.
So, not only could the passage of House Joint Resolution 203 provide a framework for ensuring that every person within the state has access to healthcare, but this would certainly send a strong message nationally; an amendment to a state’s Constitution making healthcare a “right” would be the first of its kind in the U.S.
This all comes at a time in which only two-months ago House and Senate Republicans’ $1.5 trillion tax bill was passed, which included a provision that repealed the individual mandate within Obamacare. And it’s worth remembering that Obamacare was seen at the time of its passage as a “step” towards single-payer/universal healthcare. So, while the nation marches towards a future of healthcare where insurance providers are given further reigns to increase premiums, the state of Oregon moves in the opposite direction.
However, it is true that a constitutional amendment is a piece of legislation which requires fundamental, tangible changes to the existing system. House Speaker and Democrat Tina Kotek reiterated this sentiment, saying, “send an important value statement about the importance of health care, particularly as you see at the federal level there are a lot of efforts to scale back Medicaid and Medicare.” The key-word here is “value.” Kotek further provided confirmation that the goal of HJR 203 is “primarily aspirational.”
Another potential downfall that many point out regarding the proposed amendment is the inability of the state to fund this “aspirational goal” it is aiming to prop-up. A non-partisan organization, the League of Women Voters, prepared a written testimonial at the House hearing earlier this month where they stated, “This would commit the State of Oregon to expand funding to include health care coverage for all without the federal partnership. The State of Oregon has insufficient income to support its current responsibilities and cannot provide the added cost of health care coverage for all its residents at this time.” So, while the aspirations of such a change would certainly be in good faith to many individuals and groups within Oregon, even progressives argue that the bill lacks sufficient ground to stand on.
Despite the problems associated with the enactment of healthcare as a right in the state’s Constitution, many argue that the HJR 203 serves as a de-facto referendum on whether or not Oregonians would support a single-payer/universal healthcare system. Last month, nearly 60 percent of voters approved Measure 101, ensuring low-income residents will keep their healthcare coverage. It’s pieces of legislation like that and bills like HJR 203 that put on full display Oregon’s willingness to be a standard bearer in the fight for universal healthcare nationwide.
Savannah Jensen, a representative of the Oregon Nurses Association, echoed the importance of this bill going forward.
“This would commit the State of Oregon to expand funding to include health care coverage for all without the federal partnership. The State of Oregon has insufficient income to support its current responsibilities and cannot provide the added cost of health care coverage for all its residents at this time.”
The bill is now under discussion in the Oregon state Senate. If passed there, it would be on the ballot in November for Oregon residents to decide the state’s future position in terms of the role the state government should play in accessing affordable healthcare.