Signatures submitted for hospital tax referendum; could make Jan. ballot

Battle over state tax on health care

Petitioners took another step toward allowing voters to decide the fate of a new heath care tax meant to fill a funding gap in Oregon's Medicaid program after submitting signatures to the Secretary of State by Thursday's deadline.

If 58,789 signatures are validated by the Elections Division out of the 84,367 submitted, the measure will be on the ballot for a special election Tuesday, Jan. 23.

“I’ve personally talked to thousands of Oregonians this summer who are incredibly frustrated that the state has not worked harder to better use its healthcare resources," Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, a chief petitioner for the referendum, said in a statement.

Referendum 301 refers to voters sections of the health care tax law — House Bill 2391 — that passed in the 2017 legislative session. It applies taxes to health insurance premiums and some hospitals. The bill was a compromise between health care providers, insurance companies and lawmakers, aimed at maintaining funding and participation levels for the Oregon Health Plan.

Enrollment in the program was expanded under the Affordable Care Act, which required the federal government to pay for newly eligible enrollees. But states must bear more of the burden past 2016 if they want to maintain enrollment levels.

Oregon needed to pick up 5 percent of the tab this year, which will grow to an expected 10 percent in 2020.

At a rally in Portland Thursday morning, the Coalition of Community Health Clinics launched the de facto first step of their campaign for the current law. Assuming that petitioners would have enough valid signatures to get the referendum on the ballot, patients and health care providers spoke out in support.

"The Medicaid expansion and Oregon Health Plan changed my life,” said Nico Serra, an Oregon Health Plan recipient and member of Health Care for All Oregon. "All Oregonians, especially those contending with disabilities, need access to care that they can afford.”

If voters reject the referendum, the plan will lose hundreds of millions in state funding (plus federal matching funds) and lawmakers would likely be forced to take up this issue once more during the 2018 shortened session. In fact, that was the intent when they decided during session to schedule the vote for January. 

Lawmakers could make up the shortfall by cutting other programs, raising revenue in another manner or removing up to 378,000 people from Medicaid.

Additionally, the referendum has found its way to the courts.

Petitioners have appealed the wording of the ballot title to the Oregon Supreme Court, upset, in part, that the title doesn't include the word "tax." The current title calls the revenue gathering process an "assessment," because that is consistent with language used in the law. Petitioners argue that wording obfuscates the law's purpose.

The other brewing legal challenge revolves around which portions of the law are being referred.

In September, legislative counsel Dexter Johnson indicated that one of the central taxes being referred — a 0.7 percent tax increase on some hospitals — only applied to the section instituting the tax for the end of 2017. This means the referendum doesn't apply to this tax in 2018 and beyond. 

Parrish said at the time that, if voters rejected the referendum and the state still tried to implement the hospital tax, she would look at taking it to court.

© 2017 KGW-TV


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