Oregon voters overwhelmingly approved a package of health care taxes to ensure low-income Oregonians will keep their health coverage.
About 60 percent of voters cast their ballot in favor of Measure 101, according to unofficial results Tuesday night.
The referendum asked voters to approve up to $320 million in taxes on hospitals and certain health insurers to help pay for those on the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s version of Medicaid. If voters had rejected Measure 101, the decision would have overturned the health care taxes, leaving lawmakers scrambling to fill a budget hole to ensure hundreds of thousands of low-income Oregonians didn't lose coverage.
Voters' decision to embrace the taxes means they will stay intact, protecting the status quo. Still, State Senate President Peter Courtney warned that legislators must confront other looming financial questions even with the Measure 101 victory.
"It may be a win, but we aren’t out of the woods yet," Courtney said in a written statement. "Our budget focus must now shift to the February forecast and the effects federal tax changes will have on state revenue. ... We have a lot of work to do.”
Howls of excitement here at ‘Yes on 101’ as first results released. 25 percent of votes counted. pic.twitter.com/XaEIdAiIEG— Kristian FodenVencil (@KristianOPB) January 24, 2018
Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, led opposition to the taxes and told voters the state could have found the money elsewhere without anyone losing health care.
But her campaign faced big obstacles; more than 160 community groups, including the very hospitals and insurers taxed by Measure 101, supported the ballot measure.
The "no" side raised about $125,000 — compared to $3.6 million collected in support of Measure 101.
Andy Davidson, the president and CEO of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, said the vote sends a clear message.
"It is a recognition that our vulnerable friends and neighbors need access to the lifesaving services that our entire health care system provides," Davidson said in a statement.
Parrish said she's undeterred by the defeat.
“At the end of the day, we had one big goal to let voters vote and we did that,” Parrish said. “Our goal was to educate voters. I feel like [Rep.] Cedric [Hayden, R-Roseburg,] and I are more like whistleblowers right now than lawmakers. We are out there trying to make people understand there is a problem in our health care system.”
An Offshoot Of Obamacare
Oregon embraced the Affordable Care Act and expanded the number of people who receive health care.
For the first several years of the Medicaid expansion, the federal government covered most of the bill. But a drop in federal funds meant the state needed to start picking up more of the tab.
To raise that money, the Legislature voted last summer to increase the tax on hospitals, expand it to small and rural hospitals and tax some health insurance plans.
Measure 101 addressed two parts of that larger legislative deal, a 0.7 percent tax on large hospitals and a 1.5 percent tax on some health insurance plans. Proponents warned that 350,000 Medicaid patients risked losing their coverage if the measure failed.
The “no” campaign pointed to money misspent in the past by the Oregon Health Authority, the agency charged with overseeing Medicaid funds. A recent audit of the health authority showed the agency failed to detect improper payments and didn’t act swiftly when trying to determine who is eligible for Medicaid.
Although some Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Jackie Winters, supported Measure 101, among the most notable opponents was Rep. Knute Buehler, the party's leading candidate for governor this year.
As Tuesday's results came in, House Minority Leader Mike McLane said lawmakers now must focus on making both the Oregon Health Plan and the Oregon Health Authority more efficient.
"Our state’s health care programs have suffered from chronic failure for years. This culture of incompetence cannot be excused or forgotten in the wake of this ballot measure," McLane said in a statement. "I hope legislators on both sides of the aisle will make it a priority to safeguard and protect the investment in our state government that Oregon taxpayers have affirmed tonight.”
Nearly 1 million Oregonians — or 1 in 4 — rely on Medicaid for health coverage.