Rolling out major changes in health care delivery for Oregonians will be one of the major priorities of the Democrats who now control the Legislature.
"I think we will have universal health care for the state of Oregon by 2017," said Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat who is a co-chairman of the powerful Joint Ways and Means Committee.
The Oregon Legislature and Gov. John Kitzhaber previously have taken steps to implement an Oregon version of the federal Affordable Care Act, creating a health care system in the state that received bipartisan support because it could bring long-term savings.
By January 2014, many Oregonians will see major portions of the new health care system in place, with more changes continuing to roll out until 2017.
Buckley said the state still faces fiscal challenges and a very slow economic recovery as the Legislature prepares to open its session in January.
He said he expects legislators to face tough decisions in funding early childhood education and other anti-poverty programs for children.
Buckley said he thinks the Legislature will try to push through a state version of the Dream Act, which would permit in-state tuition for undocumented children who have graduated from Oregon high schools and are going on to a college or university.
With Democrats in control of the House, Senate and governor's office, Republicans will have to take a back seat in most discussions. But Buckley said he still anticipates bipartisan support on 90 percent or more of the issues the Legislature will face.
Buckley said he doesn't think Democrats will push for new taxes in the new legislative session despite pressures to increase funding of K-12 education and other programs.
Sen. Alan Bates, a Medford Democrat, agreed with Buckley that there is enough common ground that both parties will agree on a majority of issues, while staying within a tight budget.
He was more forceful about the possibility of tax increases.
"Taxes are off the table," he said.
Bates, who also is a doctor, has been a key player in putting the pieces together for Oregon's comprehensive health care reform.
He said the program should help prevent some of the cost-shifting that occurs when people without insurance seek care at a local hospital. Those with insurance now see higher premiums to cover those without insurance, he said.
Many of the provisions in Oregon's health plan are related to the federal Affordable Care Act.
Under the Oregon plan, a family of four with an annual income of $31,000, which is slightly higher than the federal poverty level, would generally qualify for the Oregon Health Plan, which is this state's version of Medicaid.
If the same family earned $31,500, it would no longer qualify for the Oregon Health Plan. Under new health care legislation in the state, the family would be required to obtain health insurance at an estimated cost of $960 annually in 2014, though tax credits would offset some of the costs. The same family could face a maximum out-of-pocket expense for co-pays and deductibles of $4,167, according to the website coveroregon.com, which provides information for Oregonians looking for health plans.
Bates said the federal law would charge a penalty for Oregonians who don't pay for health coverage, although there are currently no provisions for enforcement.
Bates said most pieces of legislation already have been enacted for the health care changes, though he said legislators will be actively involved in shepherding the changes along this year.
Rep. Sal Esquivel, a Medford Republican, said he supports the health care legislation and believes it will generate savings over the long-term.
"I personally think it will be OK," he said.
Esquivel said he would like to see a greater emphasis on the state saving money rather than expanding programs.
But Esquivel, who will be in his fifth term as a state representative, said he's comfortable working across the aisle even when Republicans have to take a back seat.
"I've been in the minority three out of five times," he said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.