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Oregon Candidates Take Nuanced Approach To Affordable Care Act

President Barack Obama’s landmark legislation, the Affordable Care Act, is playing a significant role this election season. But the act isn’t turning out to be the lightning rod expected in Oregon, so local politicians are taking a more nuanced approach.

Kate Black/OPB

In Colorado, state House Republican Cory Gardner is running for U.S. Sen. Mark Udall’s seat.

Gardner aired this ad, which focused exclusively on the Affordable Care Act: “When Mark Udall voted for Obamacare, he promised us if we liked our health care plan, we could keep it. Well you know how that worked out.”

Here in Oregon, Republicans were expected to strike a similar tone.

But Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University, says that hasn’t happened.

“This is actually really typical of elections,” Moore says. “A year out from elections, people say, ‘Ah, this is going to be the big issue.’ And it rarely is.”

The reasons why are clear, he says. “As the ACA has come into effect over this past year, it has been something that has been viewed pretty positively by voters across the spectrum.”

Republicans have had to strike a delicate balance between bashing Cover Oregon and courting voters who’ve benefited from new health insurance.

Arguably, there’s no politician more linked to the Affordable Care Act in Oregon than Gov. John Kitzhaber. His Republican challenger, state Rep. Dennis Richardson, started his Web campaign with a hard-hitting ad targeting Cover Oregon’s failure.

Governor John Kitzhaber (left) and Dennis Richardson (right)

Governor John Kitzhaber (left) and Dennis Richardson (right)

Governor John Kitzhaber’s Press Office / Citizens to Elect Dennis Richardson

In it, there’s a greenish picture of Kitzhaber superimposed over dollar bills flying around. The text says: “Gov. Kitzhaber is wasting your money.”

The commercial then adds up all the funds spent on Cover Oregon, the Columbia River Crossing and other projects and asks: “Can Oregon taxpayers afford to re-elect Gov. Kitzhaber?”

But since that first Web ad, Richardson has adopted a more nuanced view of the Affordable Care Act.

Here he is at a recent health care conference: “One of our claims to fame that our current governor uses when we have debates and so forth is that we’ve enrolled 300,000 more Oregonians for health care. And while that’s great, we want everyone to have good health care. The real issue is not just insurance, but it’s access to actual care and treatment.”

He says there’s hasn’t been a substantial increase in doctors to treat all the people who now have insurance.

To be clear, Richardson is still calling for the repeal of Cover Oregon.

But Moore, the political scientist, says the lack of a steady stream of anti-Cover Oregon ads is telling.

“Dennis Richardson has discovered that his focus on Cover Oregon is not moving voters,” Moore says.

For his part, Kitzhaber keeps campaigning on the fact that the percentage of uninsured Oregonians has dropped from 15 to 5 percent over the last year.

“This model is not only reducing costs, it’s producing remarkably positive health outcomes for people in the state of Oregon. And we intend to move this … to the private sector, which could be an absolute game changer for businesses in the state,” Kitzhaber says. “So this is a huge success story and we’re leading the nation here in redefining and changing our model for delivering health care.”

Another important race in Oregon is being fought between incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and Republican neurosurgeon Monica Wehby.

Democratic U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and Republican neurosurgeon Monica Wehby.

Democratic U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and Republican neurosurgeon Monica Wehby.

Like Kitzhaber, Merkley acknowledges the failure of Cover Oregon, then turns to highlight all the newly insured.

Wehby, too, says the act has some redeeming features, like allowing parents to keep a child on their insurance until age 26, and the ban on denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

“I think those are all good changes to make sure that people are covered because we do want everyone covered,” she says. “The problem with this health care plan is, like so many of Merkley’s plans, is that the answer to everything is a big massive federal over-regulation and intrusion into our lives.”

Merkley’s campaign responds by repeating its earlier charge that Wehby plagiarized Karl Rove’s health care plan. Given that, the campaign said, it’s difficult to take her criticisms seriously.

But rather than focus on the Cover Oregon fiasco, Wehby highlights what she calls the string of broken promises contained in the Affordable Care Act, like the “If you like your plan you can keep it.”

Voters get the ultimate chance to deliver their opinions on the act — and on local politicians — Nov. 4.