December 13, 2017: Measure 101 Debate: More Funds for Medicaid vs. Suspicion With Process

Both sides of the statewide referendum on healthcare taxes say they support funding the Oregon Health Plan, but as they debated they revealed fundamentally different priorities.
By Courtney Sherwood

Opponents and supporters of Measure 101, the referendum on Oregon’s expanded healthcare taxes that goes to the voters in January, argued opposing sides to two apparently different debates on Wednesday morning at the Oregon Health Forum’s deep dive intto the topic.

Supporting the measure were Felisa Hagins, political director of Services Employees International Union Local 49, and Jessica Adamson, director of government affairs at Providence Health & Services. Their side has widely been backed by the healthcare industry, including hospitals, insurers, and unions, and has the support of a broad coalition of service providers.

They did battle with two Republican state representatives who led the push for a referendum on the taxes, Cedric Hayden and Julie Parrish, who urged for “no” votes on Measure 101. Their side includes tax skeptics and idealists, and is backed by several prominent far-right groups.

Hagins and Adamson portrayed the insurance and managed care organization taxes that are the subject of the Measure 101 referendum as part of a grand bipartisan compromise, and said they are critical to maintaining Oregon’s Medicaid expansion.

“It’s about the 400,000 kids who depend on Medicaid. It’s about vulnerable adults and families who are working hard but don’t’ earn enough to afford healthcare,” Adamson said.

Hayden and Parrish, who both said they support funding for Medicaid, said they want to repeal some health-related taxes out of concern that they will result in higher costs for healthcare consumers. They also raised fears because some of the new revenue is not tied by law to only be used by health programs, future Legislatures could shift these dollars away – thus undercutting healthcare while fueling growth in government.

At a discussion moderated by John Schrag, executive editor of the Pamplin Media Group, both sides were encouraged to question their opponents and debate one another on Measure 101. Instead, the panelists often preferred to focus on their own arguments, rather than on questioning the other side.

A yes vote protects taxes that will be used to balance risk in an effort to hold down insurance rate increases, and to qualify for federal Medicaid matching dollars. A no vote repeals some of the taxes included in the $548 million provider tax legislation approved earlier this year, and would force state legislators to either find new funding or change their spending plans when they return to Salem in February.

But even to the question of just how much money is at risk, and what other funding sources are available, the facts were hard to pin down on Wednesday.

Hayden argued that the tax deal passed in the last legislative session overlooked a $100 million funding source that would have been available if it had expanded assessments on hospitals. Parrish suggested that with a state Medicaid budget of close to $13.7 billion, Oregon should be able to make up for a shortfall if the taxes are repealed.

Meanwhile, Hagins argued that expanded tax revenue is critical to fully funding the state’s Medicaid expansion. “We have a solution right now for the next two years that funds healthcare for $350,000 Oregonians, including 60,000 children,” she said. And without the full funding that Measure 101’s approval would protect, people will lose coverage, Adamson argued.

Both sides earned applause at the gathering of the Oregon Health Forum, which is a sister organization to The Lund Report, and neither side seemed to succeed at changing the other’s mind.

“We are having the wrong conversation,” Parris said, in a moment of frustration. “We are not having the systemic conversation about how we fund this population.”

“We balanced the Medicaid budget with the resources from Measure 101,” Adamson said. “Respectfully, the folks sitting at this table disagreed with the solution that three fifths of their colleagues voted for. That’s their right. They referred it. We are having this debate today. But we’re having this debate today not because there wasn’t a solution … but because there was a disagreement over the approach.”

As to which approach voters prefer? Ballots are due to county election offices across the state by Jan. 23.