Universal health care goes to Kulongoski

SALEM — The House completed final action Friday on a bill to provide universal health care coverage all eligible Oregonians by 2010.

After nearly an hour of debate, representatives voted 52-5 to approve Senate Bill 329 and sent it to Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who is expected to sign it. The bill was approved Thursday by the Senate.

The measure is known as the Bates-Westlund bill after the two co-chairs of the Special Committee on Health Care: Democrats Alan Bates of Ashland and Ben Westlund of Tumalo. It sets up an Oregon Health Trust Board to craft a health care system using existing resources, including Medicaid.

Currently roughly 600,000 Oregon residents do not have health insurance. Many smaller businesses opt out of covering employees and their families due to soaring insurance premium costs, and they could be eligible for the state program through a payroll tax.

The bill carries a $2.3 million appropriation, including federal dollars, to hire staff to craft a plan for submission to the 2009 session.

Rep. Bill Garrard, R-Klamath Falls, called SB329 a beginning and the only one on the table.

"I believe it needs all of our support, because that's all we have at this point," he said.

Rep. David Edwards, D-Hillsboro, said health care is treated "like high-end television sets, rather than a social issue."

Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said the measure could provide a clear path to reform and Rep. Ron Maurer, R-Grants Pass, said without a legislative effort, "the system will collapse and we will have to pick up the pieces."

The smattering of no votes came from conservative Republicans. Rep. Linda Flores, R-Clackamas, didn't like the lack of a definition of "universal health care" contained in the bill.

"Universal health care is one of those unknowns that troubles me," she said.

Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem.

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