Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:
The Eugene Register-Guard, Feb. 7, on not rationing Medicaid:
A proposal by the Trump administration to impose lifetime limits on adults' access to Medicaid coverage is a recipe for disaster.
Medicaid, which is a joint state and federal program, provides health care coverage to low-income and disabled people. Recipients are the working poor, children, the elderly and people with disabilities. They have no other option for adequate care.
Oregon's Medicaid program, which is called the Oregon Health Plan, covers about 1 million people, 40 percent of whom are children. (Eligibility for Medicaid is highest among children and pregnant women in Oregon.)
Another 17 percent of the people receiving Medicaid are elderly and disabled. They account for a disproportionate share of Medicaid costs — 41 percent, according to a study by the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation.
The vast majority of people receiving Medicaid in Oregon are the working poor. Eighty-one percent of the people on the Oregon Health Plan are in families with at least one member who is working. These families just don't have access to health care through an employer and can't afford to buy it on the private market.
Cutting off Medicaid at an arbitrary limit would result in a sentence of suffering, and potentially a shortened life span, for people whose only crime is to be ill and poor.
Some with serious ailments or injuries would no doubt show up in emergency rooms in search of relief, as was more common in the past, creating the double negative of increasing health care costs for everyone while depriving these patients of the comprehensive care they need to become, or stay, healthy.
Setting aside the sheer inhumanity of this, it makes no economic sense.
People who have no health care coverage and so resort to hospital emergency rooms as their only recourse impose higher costs upon hospitals. By extension, other patients see increased charges for the services they receive, and insurance premiums go up as a result.
Rising health care costs are a problem — locally, statewide and nationally. There have been increasing calls for a complete overhaul of the U.S. health care system to contain costs and improve service, including growing support for some sort of single-payer system, which has problems of its own.
There also have been some problems that need to be cleaned up. For example, Oregon found last year that tens of thousands of people who were not eligible for Medicaid, or were no longer eligible, were receiving it. This needs to be dealt with, quickly.
But rationing health care to the most vulnerable Americans — primarily poor people with chronic disabilities and illnesses that require expensive care — is not the way to reform health care. It raises the specter of citizens of one of the richest countries in the world growing sicker, or suffering from worsening disabilities, even dying, because their government says they have reached the limit of their health care benefits.
The Roseburg News-Review, Feb. 6, on Oregon Blue Zones Project:
You're grocery shopping. And you're hungry. You know it's a mistake, but you have to get it done. You wander aisle by aisle, being careful to follow your list or sticking to certain meal ingredients. Maybe a bag of chips or cookies make it into your cart, but you otherwise do really well. It's finally time to check out and there it is: all those goodies staring at you as you unload your cart. One or two won't hurt, will it? A reward for getting your shopping done and dessert for tonight is only practical. You did just spend what felt like an entire afternoon grocery shopping, after all.
Thanks to the new Oregon Blue Zones Project, you have a chance to pick up healthier options during that last leg of your shopping. Sherm's Thunderbird Market, in conjunction with Blue Zones, changed two of its checkout lanes to display healthier options for last-minute purchases. The change is simple, but combining this little step with other small changes could mean the success of those in our community.
Obesity is the No. 2 killer in Oregon. Douglas County is ranked 31st out of all Oregon's counties for overall poor health. According to the Oregon Health Authority, 34.4 percent of Douglas County residents are obese. The sad irony is that according to research, obesity is both easily preventable and treatable.
Research from Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab found that making small, easy and consistent changes in our eating habits results in gradual weight loss and creates overall healthier practices. The university's National Mindless Eating Challenge focused on making small eating behavior changes instead of dieting. A few of the participants' tips include keeping counters clear of all foods except healthy ones, never eating directly from a package, and putting down your utensils between bites. Blue Zones emphasizes this small-step notion by advocating short group walks and the simple approach of adding more fruits and veggies to your existing diet.
We commend Blue Zones Project — Umpqua and other community organizations for helping our county see the little changes it can make toward a healthier life. Instead of trying to make drastic diet changes, we are able to grab an extra bunch of bananas or a container of nuts. Perhaps the Project's greatest achievement is the fellowship it creates with its events. Organized health events provide us with the information we need, while other group activities like Walking Moais provide camaraderie. Where one might have felt completely overwhelmed before on how to change unhealthy habits, Blue Zones Project affords us numerous opportunities.
Our area is ripe with opportunity for health, and with groups like Oregon Blue Zones Project — Umpqua, we have new ways to learn and embrace health and grow both individually and as a county. We look forward to what the Blue Zone Project coordinates next for our community.
The Bend Bulletin, Feb. 6, on two state agencies failing to complete required audits:
Oregon's Department of Energy has been wracked by so many problems that legislators have debated if it should be shut down and its work distributed to other agencies. So it may come as no surprise that the department has a new problem.
Both the energy department and the Oregon Department of Agriculture have failed to perform audits as required by state law.
State law requires bigger state agencies to take a closer look at how they operate and their risks at least once every five years. They are supposed to do what are called governance and risk management audits. These internal audits can help identify what an agency is doing that works and what doesn't. They are also supposed to examine where an agency may be at risk for violating laws or rules.
Both the energy and agriculture departments have completed or participated in other audits — but not the governance and risk audit. They have excuses for not getting this one done. The energy department said it has not had an internal auditor since spring 2016. It has made an offer to an individual to take the position and that person is scheduled to start in the spring.
The agriculture department said it doesn't have an auditor. It said it was unable to borrow the Oregon Department of Forestry's auditor, as it had done in the past. So it didn't do it. The agency plans to look into hiring a contractor to perform the work.
We should note that other state agencies had auditing vacancies and are up to date on this audit requirement.
The statute with the requirement for the audit doesn't include a penalty. And it's hard to know if the failure of these two agencies to do this audit is allowing problems to fester. But the agriculture department is responsible for inspection, certification and regulation of food in Oregon. That's serious stuff.
The failure by the energy department is more worrying. The department mismanaged the state's Business Energy Tax Credit program so badly that the state closed the program. The department itself ended its Small-Scale Energy Loan program when it discovered it was $20 million in the red. And in 2017 an energy department employee admitted he was guilty of taking nearly $300,000 in bribes to help arrange sales of tax credits. "I'm dirty," he said, according to The Oregonian. In January, he asked to change his plea.
Oregon's state legislators are now busy creating new laws. Do they ever stop to check if existing laws are followed? There's no telling what they might find at the energy department.
Albany Democrat-Herald, Feb. 5, on legislators chipping away at PERS woes:
This year's short legislative session kicked off this week with two rarities.
First, legislators convene in Salem with a bit of good news about the state's beleaguered public pension system: Thanks to the boom in the stock market, the system's investments generated a 15.3 percent return last year. That's better than twice what was expected, and was enough to knock $3 billion or so off the system's $25 billion unfunded liability, The Oregonian reported. (Of course, the system still has a whopping $22 billion unfunded liability.)
Here's the second rarity: Legislators this session get a chance to examine a proposal for a small bit of reform in the Public Employees Retirement System that could afford a measure of relief for state schools, universities and community colleges.
This 35-day session won't be the place for major PERS reforms, and, in fact, it probably shouldn't be: These short legislative sessions are not the proper venues for major policy overhauls. Gov. Kate Brown has said that discussion of the main reform idea currently in play, reinstating some kind of employee contribution to the pension fund, will have to wait until 2019's longer session.
But that doesn't mean that a less-ambitious proposal shouldn't get some traction in the short session, so we noted with interest Brown's Senate Bill 1566, which will get its initial hearing on Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Workforce. (A copy of the bill is attached to the online version of this editorial.)
The bill attracted support last week from Sens. Kathleen Taylor and Tim Knopp, the chair and vice chair of that committee. More telling, perhaps, is the fact that Taylor is a Democrat from Portland and Knopp is a Republican from Bend. And Knopp has been one of the few legislators who's been active on the PERS front, and that has been lonely duty in recent sessions.
Senate Bill 1566 would:
. Create an Employer Incentive Fund, which would offer a state match to contributions made by employers willing to put unappropriated revenues toward reducing its PERS liability. The goal is to come up with $400 million in state money to match $1.6 billion in employer contributions. But a revenue source for the state money has yet to be identified, and it's not clear how many public employers have the money on hand to contribute to the fund.
. Create a side account for K-12 districts to offset future PERS rate increases through the use of nonappropriated funds. These funds could include increased proceeds from debt collection, above-average returns from capital gains and estate taxes (except, of course, when such returns cause a kicker) and other unanticipated revenue.
. Create a separate side account for community colleges, universities and K-12 districts using lottery revenue above projections. That revenue generally comes from new types of games, new users and unclaimed lottery prizes. The thinking is that this account would create a small measure of relief from PERS premium increases, and it wouldn't require any contributions from the schools.
No one is pretending that these small reforms will fix all of the problems facing Oregon's public pension system. But even small reforms would represent a step forward, and could lend a bit of momentum that could carry over to the 2019 session.
Speaking of momentum, the banner year enjoyed by the stock market in 2017 cleared away $3 billion of the pension system's unfunded liability. But you might recall how system officials recently dialed down the estimated rate of return from the system's investments, and it would be crazy now to revisit that number. After all, part of the PERS problem is that state officials for years overestimated that rate of return. There's no need to repeat that mistake, and the market's performance last week offered everyone a vivid reminder that what goes up also can go down.
Medford Mail Tribune, Feb. 4, on House, Senate using different playbooks on carbon cap:
Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek pulled out a Super Bowl analogy in calling for lawmakers to push ahead with an ambitious carbon tax proposal despite the brief 35-day legislative session.
The Legislature, she said, is like the New England Patriots, famous for quickly scoring points when time is short.
"We're going to work hard on the field, and we're going to get that ball across the goal line," Kotek said.
The analogy falls apart, however, when you realize that the House and the Senate, while both under Democratic control, are operating with different playbooks.
Senate President Peter Courtney and Majority Leader Ginny Burdick suggested holding off on passing the cap-and-invest legislation known as the Clean Energy Jobs Bill until the full-length 2019 session. They have a point.
The bill would set a cap on greenhouse gas pollution statewide that would decrease every year, and establish a price for every ton of emissions. The state's biggest polluters — energy utilities, fossil-fuel corporations — would be required to hold allowances for each ton they emit, by reducing their emissions below the cap, purchasing or trading for allowances or arranging for offsets. The proceeds, estimated at $700 million a year, would be spent to promote clean energy projects, train workers and provide utility bill relief.
That's not necessarily a bad idea, but it's complex legislation to push through in 35 days, and it's not the only major initiative on the table. Lawmakers also have vowed to tackle health care reform, gun control, state employee retirement changes, bond funding for Oregon State University's Cascades campus in Bend. All in a short session originally designed to make budget adjustments and other tweaks that couldn't wait for the next long session.
Supporters of the Clean Energy Jobs Bill worked throughout the 2017 session putting it together, and have worked since to drum up support. But without a buy-in from Senate Democratic leaders on a push to pass it this session, it could stall. It also would go back on a deal made with voters when short sessions were added in 2010.
For years, Oregon did its legislative business only in odd-numbered years, passing a two-year budget and wrangling over everything else in marathon sessions that sometimes stretched for more than six months. Courtney was among those lawmakers who urged voters to allow annual sessions to help the Legislature be more efficient. The measure that passed capped short sessions at 35 calendar days and long sessions at 160 days.
This year, it's possible the Legislature could face a budget shortfall of $200 million to $300 million because of the federal tax reform bill passed by Congress, but state economists have yet to predict precise figures. If that's the case, that should be lawmakers' top priority, and balancing the budget could get in the way of many items on the wish list.
Courtney has said Clean Energy Jobs should pass in 2019, and vowed not to wait any longer than that, but he fears a divisive battle this year could "tear us up."
A last-minute touchdown drive may be exciting on the football field, but it leaves the losing team bruised and angry. Rather than throwing up a hail Mary on cap-and-invest, lawmakers might be better off listening to Coach Courtney, taking a knee and going to overtime in 2019.