Oregon Legislature tackles skyrocketing health care costs

SALEM — A billboard at 12th and Union streets here greets lawmakers with a challenge: “Health care profits and insurance premiums are soaring. We’re ALL paying the price. Legislators, what are you going to do about it?”

On Feb. 7, five state senators gave their answer, introducing a five-pack of bills that they say would rein in health care cost increases by confronting price-gouging by hospitals, insurance companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

• Senate Bill 501, the Insurance Industry Accountability Act, would require insurance companies to justify rate increases — in public hearings before a governor-appointed Health Insurance Rate Review Board. In addition, the companies would have to issue an annual financial report. Backers say the bill would give consumers a voice in setting insurance rates, and would help consumers better understand what’s driving insurance rate increases.

• Senate Bill 502, the Hospital Fair Pricing Act, would regulate the rates hospitals charge, along the lines of a similar system in Maryland.

• Senate Bill 503 would require hospitals to get state approval before expanding health services, constructing or remodeling new facilities, or relocating. Critics say unnecessary duplication and unrestrained expansion of facilities are driving up the prices hospitals charge.

• Senate Bill 504 would make hospitals fulfill their supposed charter as “charitable institutions” by requiring them to provide treatment free of charge to uninsured patients earning less than twice the federal poverty level, and reduced-cost treatment for those earning between two and four times the poverty level.

• Senate Bill 505 would open up Oregon’s fledgling drug bulk purchasing pool to group health insurance policyholders; employees of state and local governments and Oregon Health and Science University; state agencies that purchase prescription drugs; and individuals over 54 years old who don’t have prescription drug coverage and earn less than 185 percent of poverty level.

The five proposals were developed last summer at a summit organized by the labor-backed health policy group Oregonians for Health Security and have the endorsement of the Oregon AFL-CIO and other union groups.

Health care costs are now the leading cause of strikes and labor disputes, and unions are having to trade away pay raises to deal with the cost of maintaining benefits.

In the Senate, the bills are co-sponsored by Democrats Kate Brown, Bill Morrisette, Alan Bates, Peter Courtney and Laurie Monnes-Anderson, and Republican Ben Westlund.

“This isn’t necessarily a magic bullet, but it’s a starting point,” said Senator Monnes-Anderson. “Oregonians consistently tell me we have to do something about rising health care costs.”

Each of the five bills has a counterpart bill in the Oregon House, though as of press time, they had not yet been issued bill numbers.

In the Senate, the bills will be debated first in the five-person Senate Health Policy Committee. Three of the committee’s five members are co-sponsors, including the chair — Monnes-Anderson — so passage there is considered likely. The bigger challenge, backers say, will be winning passage in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Hospitals, insurance companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers are expected to fight the bills.

“The hospital association is on a full- court press to absolutely crush this stuff,” said Lynn-Marie Crider, a health policy expert working for Service Employees Local 49, which represents health care workers.

But that’s not out of the question, says Maribeth Healey, executive director of Oregonians for Health Security.

“There’s not one elected official in Oregon who did not hear about health care from their constituents last year,” Healey said.

Union leaders and their health care allies are planning to turn out Friday, March 18, for a rally organized as part of a national Health Care Action Day. The event will take place at noon in downtown Portland’s Terry Schrunk Plaza across from the federal building.