By COLIN STAUB
Oregon Nurses Association (ONA) member Melissa Busch wants to bring union values to the statehouse in Salem.
A resident of rural Columbia County, Busch works as a nurse for Providence Home Health, visiting patients in the southern part of her county and parts of rural Multnomah and Washington counties.
This year she’s running for Oregon Senate in District 16, which covers those areas, all of Clatsop County and—when new district boundaries take effect in 2023—all of Tillamook County. The district was long held by former Senator Betsy Johnson, who stepped down to run for governor this year. It’s currently represented by Senator Rachel Armitage, appointed in January by votes of all county commissioners within the district. Armitage did not file to keep the position and has endorsed Busch in the race.
Busch, 41, lived in Topeka, Kansas, until she was 17, when she and some friends headed for Oregon after graduating high school.
Busch earned a degree in religious studies from Lewis & Clark, but didn’t want to pursue an academic career. She spent four years working in the food service industry, trying to figure out her next steps.
“I wanted to be in a profession where I was working with people in some kind of helping and caring capacity,” Busch said.
She returned to school to become a nurse, attending the University of Portland.
Busch has been with her husband for 14 years, and they married this past June. They have two children together, ages 9 and 11, and a 17-year-old who is Busch’s stepson. He turns 18 at the beginning of November, meaning Busch will be on the ballot for the first election he can vote in. All three attend public schools in Columbia County. With a laugh, Busch says her kids are “mostly supportive of the campaign,” although the time she’s away from home campaigning can be challenging.
In her day job, Busch typically visits four to seven patients in their homes per day. She provides hands-on care, servicing and cleaning any surgical tubes after an operation, for example. When a patient gets a new diagnosis or medication, she gives basic education. She also helps patients with chronic or terminal illness learn how to live with the condition.
Her job puts her in contact with older people, people with disabilities, and their families.
Busch sees plenty of people in hard situations. She knows patients who have worked their whole lives and still struggle to afford health care. She sees lots of working people who are trying to care for their own children and elderly family members at the same time.
“People feel like they’re up against such great odds trying to access the basic care to stay healthy, to stay out of hospitals, to raise healthy families,” Busch told the Labor Press.
The current health care system is failing a lot of Oregonians, Busch says, especially in rural areas. And the cost is a key problem, she says.
“Even with nonprofit health care institutions, the reality is it’s still a profit-driven system,” Busch said. “That falls heavily on the backs of the people that do the work, but ultimately it also is really a disservice to the people that we serve.”
While knocking doors throughout Senate District 16, she’s heard stories of people choosing between paying for prescriptions and paying an electric bill, or weighing the cost of a medical appointment against buying groceries for family for the week. She’s seen patients refuse ambulance service, risking their own lives instead of paying the cost for timely medical transport.
Busch favors a universal health care system, and supports the work of Oregon’s Task Force on Universal Health Care, established by the legislature in 2019. The task force is charged with recommending an affordable, comprehensive, publicly funded health care system for Oregonians. It would be a huge shift from private health insurance, and Busch says such an overhaul would benefit more people than previous improvements, like expanding Medicaid.
“The reality is we’re working under a system that is clearly not working for people,” Busch said.
Until there’s a system overhaul, Busch says increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates would make assisted living services and other long-term care more accessible to Oregonians. Increasing reimbursement rates would also help cover costs for clinicians who primarily serve Medicaid-covered patients, she says.
Busch has been an ONA member for 13 years. Before moving to home care, she worked for Providence Portland Medical Center for 10 years. At the hospital, she served on the joint labor-management committee that sets minimum nurse staffing levels for each department. In 2017, Busch joined ONA’s Political Action Committee, which decides the union’s legislative endorsements. As a committee member, she took part in the union’s endorsement process for the 2018 and 2020 elections. Then she decided to run herself.
To prepare, Busch also graduated from the Oregon Labor Candidate School, which trains union members on how to run for political office. Busch enrolled after an ONA government relations rep recommended it during her time with the political committee. During the six-month course, she connected with members of other unions, and came to see the values shared across unions: Solidarity, fairness, teamwork, and a commitment to stand up for the underdog.
She sees the underlying principles of the labor movement as very much part of her electoral campaign.
Busch ran unopposed in the Democratic primary for the seat, and she is cross-nominated by the Independent Party. She’s endorsed by ONA, the Oregon Education Association, Oregon AFSCME, Oregon AFL-CIO, SEIU, the Oregon State Building Trades Council, IBEW Local 48, Northwest Carpenters Union and the Working Families Party. Her campaign is considered a labor priority this year; a win would add a solid labor champion to a Senate that has too often struggled to find majorities for pro-labor legislation.
Busch faces Republican nominee Suzanne Weber, who’s currently the state representative for House District 32, which covers half the population of Senate District 16. Weber, a longtime elementary school teacher, hasn’t received any union endorsements, not even that of her own union.
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The Oregon Labor Candidate School (OLCS) trains union members on how to run for public office. Its trainers hail from unions across the state. Its next cohort starts in January 2023. Visit OregonLaborCandidateSchool.org for more information.