Universal health care measure dies in Senate

Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, chairman of the House Health Care Committee, was the sponsor of a voter referral to amend the Oregon Constitution to make health care a fundamental right. The measure died in the Senate Monday for lack of votes.

SALEM — A legislative referral to ask voters to amend the Constitution to make access to cost-effective and affordable health care the right of all Oregon residents lacks the votes to pass the Senate, according to Senate Democrats.

Despite proposed wording changes, “there were still concerns about individual suing the state,” said Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, chairwoman of the Senate Health Committee.

“We were just down to the wire. Trying to come to an agreement on language changes was just really tough.”

The measure, called House Joint Referral 203, passed the House along party lines Feb. 13.

Monnes Anderson announced Monday, Feb. 26, that her committee would not hold a vote on the referral. Even though the committee had enough votes to send the measure to the Senate floor, there are not enough votes to pass the bill in the larger body, she said.

“The bill would have needed extensive amendments for it to get the support it needs in the Senate, and given this late timing in the session, the committee chair made the difficult decision to not move forward with it,” said Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland.

Had the referral been approved in the Legislature, the proposal would have gone to voters in the November general election.

In the House, all 35 Democrats voted for the measure, while the 25 Republicans opposed it.

Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, who has repeatedly sponsored the measure, said this is the third consecutive time the Senate has blocked the referral.

In light of federal efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act, Greenlick said it is important for Oregon voters to weigh in on whether they want health care to be accessible to everyone.

“I think we are making a terrible mistake not to give them the opportunity to tell us whether they really believe that universal access to health care is something that our citizens deserve and that we should take seriously as we consider how we move forward in dealing with the health care system,” he said.

Using a catchphrase from the 1984 science fiction film, “The Terminator,” Greenlick said: “I will be back.”

The practical impact of creating such a right was unclear.

House Speaker Tina Kotek and Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, both Democrats from Portland, described the measure primarily as “aspirational,” but some legal experts said adding the right to the Constitution could spur litigation.

“I think we all agree that health care should be an inalienable right for everyone. I’m concerned that you send it to the voters and the voters say yes and it comes back, at what expense do we pay for it?” said Sen. Alan DeBoer, R-Ashland, a member of the Senate Health Care Committee. “We need the federal government to come to the table. I have always been a supporter of single payer … but how do you pay for it once you approve it and the lawsuits?”

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