State Sen. Alan Bates, a Medford physician who was in the forefront of the state's health care reform, died Friday during a fishing trip, apparently after suffering a heart attack.
"I'm heartbroken," state Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said this morning. "I got a call late last night from the speaker, who had been called by the Senate president."
Bates, 71, one of the few Southern Oregon Democrats in the Legislature, was a key player in both health care reform and in developing human services programs and budgets. In 1989, he was appointed to the Health Services Commission, which helped design and implement the Oregon Health Plan. He was re-appointed by Gov. Barbara Roberts and again by Gov. John Kitzhaber. He chaired the commission for three years, until resigning to run for public office.
He was elected as a state representative in 2000 and moved to the Senate after the 2004 election. Prior to joining the Legislature, he served 10 years on the Eagle Point School Board.
Bates died Friday while fly fishing with his son. According to the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, Bates and his son stopped to clean their fish off of Highway 230, about six miles past the Highway 62 turnoff to Crater Lake. Bates had walked down to the river and when his son went to look for him after about 10 minutes, and he found him dead.
In a statement released this morning, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown called Bates "a close friend, a statesman, and a doctor who was deeply committed to ensuring that every Oregonian had access to health care."
"He left an indelible impression on Oregon, and I will miss him forever," Brown said. She ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff in honor of Bates.
State Senate President Peter Courtney also sent out a short statement this morning, expressing his sorrow.
“What are we going to do without Doc?," Courtney's statement read. "He was always there to take care of us and all of Oregon. We relied on him. He saved lives. Along with his family, we are stunned and we are sad.”
Oregon U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden offered his condolences as well.
"As a doctor and legislator, Alan succeeded mightily in making people's lives better — a rich legacy that I remember as I mourn the sad news of his passing," Wyden said in a release. "I will always treasure Alan's wise and common-sense counsel on health care, foster care and so many other issues core to his ethic of service to others."
Bates family issued the following statement at about 10:30 a.m.:
“The entire Bates family is still in shock at this sudden tragedy. We are gathering together to be there for one another in this time of need,” the family said. “He was such a great man with an impact on Oregon, his community, his patients and most of all, his family. He saved so many lives through a lifetime of practicing medicine, helping generations of southern Oregonians better their health. He went on to help many more people in his work in the Oregon Legislature. His loss will be felt throughout the state. The family welcomes thoughts and prayers while we grieve together. We are comforted in the fact that he passed after a day of doing something he loved: fly fishing with his son. We will always think of him when we hear the sound of the river, feel the summer sunlight and see a fly line cast upon the water.”
Buckley said Bates will be missed not only by his friends and family, but by the state at large.
"He cared so much; worked on so many things that were so important and he did it so well," Buckley said as he choked with emotion. "He just never gave up.
"He was so central to the Health and Human Services budget ... to have him not be there is really a hardship for the state. He had so much knowledge of how it all fit together."
The appreciation for Bates reached across the political aisle.
"It's a great loss for Southern Oregon and for the whole state of Oregon," state Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said. "We lost a true statesman."
Esquivel said he had spoken with Bates about a week ago.
"He was jovial and said he was going to take some time off and relax," he said.
"He was a true Oregonian," said John Watt, a former Medford Republican state representative who is currently a transportation lobbyist. "We didn't always agree on everything, but we always remained friends."
House Republican Leader Mike McLane, whose district includes Jackson County, also expressed sorrow over Bates' passing.
"Our hearts are in mourning today as we grieve the loss of our friend, Senator Alan Bates," McLane said in a statement. "Senator Bates was a man of enormous integrity and a truly selfless public servant. He touched the lives of thousands of Oregonians through his work as both a senator and family physician."
A Vietnam veteran, Bates has served as chief of medicine at both Rogue Regional Medical Center and Providence Medical Center, was a founding board member of a primary care physicians' group and was a current board member for Asante Physician Partners.
Roy Vinyard, president and chief executive of Asante, which operates RRMC, said Bates was a leader locally and statewide on health care issues.
"He was so involved in medical staff leadership here," Vinyard said, "and more than that, he was a tireless physician. The guy had more energy than anyone I ever met."
Vinyard and others noted that week after week during the legislative session, Bates would spend weekdays in Salem, then return home on the weekend and see what Vinyard described as "a full load" of patients.
"That was an amazing tribute to his energy level and his passion as a physician," Vinyard said.
Vinyard said the proof of Bates' impact as a legislator and a physician can be seen across Oregon.
"He helped extend health care to hundreds of thousands of people around the state," he said. "He just made a huge difference in people's lives."
Bob Hunter is editor of the Mail Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.