For years, Julie Parrish ran a small business dedicated to finding the best coupon deals. And she was pretty good at it: She once bought 50 18-ounce jars of Skippy peanut butter for 17 cents each. She still tweets using the handle @hotcouponmama.
These days, Parrish is a state legislator who thinks Oregon government could use some of that coupon-cutting mentality. Nowhere, she said, is that more evident than when it comes to health care. On Jan. 23, Oregonians will be asked to weigh in on a complicated package of taxes approved by the state Legislature.
Boiled down, Measure 101 is one question: Should Oregon stick with the plan lawmakers came up with last year to fund health insurance for the state's neediest populations?
The taxes are believed to generate about $210 million to $330 million and leverage more money in federal matching dollars.
A "yes" vote keeps the taxes on hospitals and some insurance plans intact. The money from these taxes helps pay for health care for low-income Oregonians on Medicaid. A "no" vote overturns the taxes and blows a hole in the state budget. Lawmakers would need to dedicate the upcoming six-week session to find a solution to ensure people don’t lose their health care.
The ballot measure itself is wonky. But Parrish has a tendency to make it even more complicated on the stump by raising broader questions about the entire Medicaid system. That’s not what voters are being asked to weigh in on, but the 43-year-old lawmaker thinks a "no" vote would send a message that voters want systemic changes to the way Oregon pays for health coverage.
Parrish said the Oregon Health Plan — Oregon’s version of Medicaid — is broken.
“Ultimately it needs fixing,” she said. “You know, sometimes the way to heal that broken bone that didn’t heal right is to break it and reset it. And that’s kind of what Measure 101 is about.”
To get this measure on the ballot, Parrish spearheaded an effort to collect nearly 90,000 signatures. She gave out her personal cellphone number in the newspaper so confused voters could call her directly. She traveled from Newport to Pendleton to convince editorial boards to write op-eds against Measure 101.
But in many ways, Parrish stands alone. The "Yes On 101" campaign has fundraised thousands more dollars. The hospitals who stand to be taxed support a yes vote. And some members of her own party have publicly come out in favor of the measure.
Senate Republican Leader Jackie Winters has struggled with cancer recently. Spending time at the hospital, she said, has only reinforced her belief the tax on hospitals is necessary.
Parrish has never been afraid to contradict members of her party. Not long after she was elected to serve a district that includes West Linn and Tualatin, she broke ranks with her fellow state Republicans and supported same-sex marriage in 2014. For the past three years, she hasn’t caucused with her party.
She is, however, a savvy political operative. Parrish now runs a campaign consulting company and was behind Dennis Richardson’s successful campaign for Secretary of State in 2016 — the first time a Republican won statewide office in Oregon since 2002.
Those who want to keep the taxes intact say Parrish is playing a dangerous game with the state’s most vulnerable. Ben Unger heads the union-backed political advocacy group Our Oregon. Unger blasts Parrish. He said her move to try to dismantle the system is about personal ambition rather than what’s best for the state.
“The Julie Parrish plan for health care is no better than the congressional plan for health care, which is to repeal the current plan but have no scheme or replacement in mind and just hope things turn out for the best,” Unger said.
In some ways, Parrish is an unlikely backer of a measure that could cut people from the Oregon Health Plan. She grew up poor. She was homeless off and on.
“I think there is a notion that somehow if you’re a Republican, you can’t possibly care about people living in poverty,” Parrish said. “For those of us who grew up in poverty, it’s hard not to think about those things.”
Shortly after she was elected to the state Legislature in 2011, Parrish pushed a bill expanding Medicaid for the short-term prison population. It gave health care to recently released inmates and was inspired by her sister, who served time at the women’s prison in Salem for identity theft and drug-related crimes.
“The bill was signed, and she overdosed and died 18 days later,” Parrish said. “Lack of health care for people in vulnerable populations has always been really important to me as a lawmaker.”
Parrish said she doesn’t want to see poorer Oregonians stripped of their health care. Instead, she points to money misspent by the Oregon Health Authority and raises questions about how the state funds health care overall. She no longer runs a coupon-cutting website, but she said, those money-saving instincts are still there.
“At the end of the day, that coupon lady has not gone away,” she said.
With that, Parrish went to Fred Meyer. Whole chickens were on sale for 79 cents a pound. She bought six.