Republican gubernatorial hopeful and Roseburg High School graduate Knute Buehler on Tuesday called on Gov. Kate Brown to convene a special legislative session in November to revise how Oregon pays for its Medicaid program.
At issue is a $550 million package of new taxes on hospitals and health insurers that state lawmakers passed earlier this year to help pay for the government-funded health insurance of roughly 1 million Oregonians during the next two years.
But several GOP state lawmakers are collecting signatures to refer those “provider” taxes to voters for a repeal, likely in a special election next January.
In an open letter to Brown, Buehler urged her to try to avoid “an unnecessary and divisive political campaign” by calling a special session in which lawmakers could pass a different funding package “that enjoy(s) strong bipartisan majorities.”
Critics of the taxes say providers simply will turn around and bill patients and people who have private health insurance for the increases.
Brown responded with little enthusiasm to Buehler’s overture, however, defending the new taxes on health care providers as the product of long negotiations involving Democrats, Republicans and the health care industry.
Buehler “had six months to put forward a plan and build the support of his colleagues in the Legislature, and he failed to do so,” she said.
In a separate and unusual action, Brown announced Tuesday that she plans to veto $3.65 million in construction funding for three Medford-area projects. Some see the move is retribution against GOP Rep. Sal Esquivel of Medford, who provided a crucial Republican yes vote to allow the provider taxes to pass the House but then became a leading voice in the effort to refer them to voters.
“The cornerstone of all negotiations, whether they occur in a public or private arena, is the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing,” Brown said in an atypically unvarnished prepared statement.
The intended veto would scrap $1.9 million in funding for an irrigation project, $1 million for restoration at the Holly Theatre, and $750,000 for renovations at the Harry and David Baseball Field.
Esquivel acknowledged Tuesday that he agreed to vote yes for the provider taxes in exchange for state funding for three favored projects. But that deal covered only his vote on the floor, Esquivel said, not any later actions he might take, such as his support of the referral campaign.
“If anyone says otherwise, they’re a liar,” he said.
Brown is being “vindictive,” Esquivel added, by yanking funding from projects. He said he supports putting the health care taxes to the voters.
But Brown said she believes that “each of these (construction) projects should be considered during the 2018 session to be evaluated on their merits.”
The two developments surrounding the health care taxes Tuesday highlight an issue with which Oregonians will likely become much more familiar in coming months, if a special election materializes and potentially during the 2018 gubernatorial race.
Supporters of the referral have until Oct. 5 to submit 59,000 valid signatures.
If Brown did call a special session, Buehler said he would push to do away with a new 1.5 percent tax on certain health insurance plans.
And he wants to provide only one year of guaranteed funding for the Oregon Health Authority — versus the already-approved two years — because of the agency’s recent failure to conduct timely eligibility checks on Medicaid recipients. So far, OHA has found that it awarded health benefits to 37,000 ineligible people during the past year.
While Buehler’s proposal is identical to the House Republican plan that Democrats rejected earlier this year, he said things have shifted now because it’s looking “increasingly likely” that opponents will be successful in referring the tax to voters.
“It’s not too late to reset and come to an agreement,” he said.
In an apparent reference to the problems with OHA’s Medicaid eligiblity checks, Brown said she is “monitoring the use of taxpayer dollars very closely.”
But she defended the tax hike plan that Democrats shepherded through the Legislature.
“Health care policy shouldn’t be determined at the ballot box. That’s why our solution to funding health care for the most vulnerable came from a careful, inclusive and thorough development process that began in the summer of 2016,” Brown said. “This is the Oregon way.”