Board champions universal healthcare, calls for single-payer system for Oregon

May 25, 2022

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners is urging Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the Legislature to create a universal healthcare system for all Oregon residents. In a resolution passed May 17, the Board called on lawmakers to create a publicly funded, state-run, single-payer healthcare system, and asked Brown to get cooperation from the federal government to fund it.

Advocates asked county commissioners to continue pushing for a single-payer universal healthcare system.

Commissioner Sharon Meieran brought the universal access resolution forward, the second she has sponsored since 2018, one co-sponsored by Commissioner Susheela Jayapal.

"As a doctor, I've seen firsthand so often how the unequal access to affordable health care — or any healthcare — can majorly damage families and individuals facing some of the most challenging moments of their life,'' said Commissioner Meieran, an emergency room physician. "Money, access to insurance, those should not dictate whether someone lives or dies or the quality of the healthcare they receive."

Board members acknowledged the challenge in granting that access.

“A lot of people, when they look at our healthcare system, ask, ‘How could we ever change to a universal system?’” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “You don’t have to look far or hard to find an example where it’s successful. What we can say about our current system is that it isn’t working for a lot of people. I think we can do better.”

Efforts to establish healthcare as a human right under Oregon law began in 2005 with a ballot initiative called “Hope for Oregon Families.” In 2007 and 2008, legislators again sought an amendment to the state’s Constitution proclaiming access to healthcare as a fundamental right. Similar resolutions were introduced in 2015 and 2018.

In 2019, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 770 establishing a Task Force on Universal Health Care, charged with recommending a publicly funded universal healthcare system. And this fall, voters will consider a proposed amendment to the Oregon Constitution relating to the state’s  obligation to ensure access to health care.

Ethan Scarl, an advocate for universal healthcare who testified before the Board, pointed to Canada’s universal healthcare system – and Saskatchewan, the central prairie province that started it all. It was so popular there that it became a national program within six years.

“Canadians live free of the fear of medical bankruptcy, but not us, for whom medical bankruptcy is all too common,” he said. “Canadians wouldn’t trade with us for anything.”

Thuy Tran is an optometrist and owner of Rose City Vision Care, where she serves families whose insurance doesn’t cover eye care. As a small business owner, she provides health insurance for her staff. But she couldn’t afford a policy to cover her own family. 

So she joined the Air National Guard, which offered insurance policies with reasonable premiums.

“A funded, universal single-payer healthcare system would open up access to all those businesses. A single-payer system would take that confusion out, not just for patients but providers,” she said. “If you’re a big hospital, you can have a big department to handle that. But for small neighborhood clinics, if we simplified the process, we could provide healthcare to our staff and ourselves, and focus on providing care to our community.”

Commissioner Lori Stegmann, also a small business owner, said she also found insurance costs unreasonable. She praised the speakers for highlighting the need to provide healthcare to all, “at a reasonable price that doesn’t force people to sacrifice in other areas of their lives.” 

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal thanked Tran for calling out the false narrative about the cost to small businesses.

“Often the pushback is that it would cost too much for small businesses,” she said. “That’s contrary to the facts.”

Jill Pham, executive director of Portland Jobs with Justice, also encouraged Multnomah County to adopt the resolution. She said the current system of costly copays and insurmountable deductibles makes insurance irrelevant for many.

Commissioner Sharon Meieran agreed. “What we need is access,” she said. “Insurance doesn’t equal access.” 

In 2019, the Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 770, which created the Task Force on Universal Health Care. The Task Force is charged with recommending a universal health care system that offers equitable, affordable and comprehensive publicly funded health care to all Oregonians. Commissioner Meieran, who co-chairs the Health and Human Services Committee of the Association of Oregon Counties, OC, represents Oregon's counties on the Task Force. The Task Force will be holding listening sessions across the state this summer before making a recommendation in October 2022.

At the County meeting, Mary Lou Hennrich, who worked as a public health in Multnomah County for 30 years before becoming founding CEO for CareOregon, sits on the board of Healthcare for All Oregon. She applauded the County’s early leadership to open student health and primary care clinics, and offer prenatal care, family planning and harm reduction services. 

She said the healthcare system remains a patchwork of services and programs that can be complicated and time-consuming to learn about, apply for and access. True prevention cannot begin until all people have equal access to quality and affordable care, she said.

“Too much of our time is spent teaching our staff and our clients how to navigate the systems of care. Healthcare shouldn’t continue to be a privilege,” she said. “You have the awesome responsibility — and ability — to finally bring healthcare justice rather than charity to all residents. Now is the time for true justice."