December 13, 2003
IN MY OPINION: FOES OF BALANCED BUDGET AREN'T TELLING WHOLE STORY
Opponents of the Legislature's bipartisan balanced budget plan have
gathered enough signatures to refer it to a Feb. 3 election as
Measure 30. If the balanced budget is overturned, 85,000 Oregonians
will lose their health care coverage under the Oregon Health Plan.
This, in itself, should be unacceptable to all of us. Beyond that,
however, Oregonians who still have health insurance coverage will end
up paying the cost. Why? Because people who do not have coverage
still get care and still incur costs that ultimately we all pay for
anyway. And those costs are often much higher than if timely care had
been rendered in the first place.
When people lose their insurance coverage, they are often forced to
get needed medical care in the emergency room of their community
hospital. And under federal law, hospitals cannot turn them away.
However, to pay for this "uncompensated care," hospitals
shift the cost back onto those who have insurance by incrementally
increasing their bills. This, in turn, translates into increased
health insurance premiums.
Today, about 20 percent of health care premiums go to pay for the
cost of uncompensated care. According to the Oregon Association of
Hospitals and Health Systems, after the cuts the Legislature made to
the Oregon Health Plan last year, uncompensated care costs increased
39 percent to $108 million. Cutting the Oregon Health Plan further
means more uninsured families, more emergency room visits and higher
premiums for those who remain insured.
Furthermore, if the balanced budget is overturned, Oregon will lose
nearly a half-billion dollars from its economy. Why? Because for
every state dollar invested in the Oregon Health Plan, we receive
$1.71 from the federal government. These federal matching dollars not
only stretch the services that Oregon can offer its citizens, they
provide an important multiplier effect to our state's economy at a
time when we are struggling to recover from the recession.
At the same time, if these federal dollars go away, more people will
be unable to afford inexpensive primary and preventive care and will
be forced into the emergency room, incurring uncompensated costs
which the rest of us will end up paying. And as health care providers
lose their jobs, spending on goods and services will fall, further
hampering economic growth.
Opponents of the balanced budget are not telling you the whole
story. If they are successful, not only will tens of thousands of
Oregonians lose their health insurance coverage, the rest of us also
will end up paying more and our economic recovery will be undermined.
Surely, this is reason enough to convince Oregonians that voting yes
on Measure 30 is in the long-term interest of our state.
John Kitzhaber, M.D., is a former emergency room physician and
Oregon's governor from 1994-2002.