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Oregon Could Be the First State To Make Health Care a Right

Advocates say the change could help hundreds of thousands access health care.

Oregon may become the first state to make health care a constitutional right in November. Residents will vote on Ballot Measure 111, which would amend the state constitution to give every Oregonian a right to “cost-effective, clinically appropriate and affordable health care.”

The ballot initiative would put health care roughly on par with the right to public education, which is in every state constitution. Like with the right to education, the proposed language making health care a right in the state constitution is intentionally vague, giving the legislature the freedom to interpret and implement policy changes. 

“If the constitution says health care is a right, and we’ll say it has an obligation to work on this, that’s going to change to some extent, how we think about policy and budget,” State Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, who pushed for the ballot initiative, told More Perfect Union. 

Should the measure pass, Steiner Hayward says that she will push for a waiver that would keep people under 200 percent of the federal poverty level insured. She does not believe Measure 111 would change how people get their health insurance, nor does she think it would lead to a single-payer system, like the one in Canada, where one public agency pays for health care.

However, there would be one immediate change for residents. Oregonians would be able to sue the state if it “fails to satisfactorily implement each resident of Oregon’s fundamental right to access cost-effective, clinically appropriate and affordable health care,” according to Lorey Freeman, a member of the legislative council, in a committee meeting document

Oregon already pays for health care for almost one-third of residents through the state’s Medicaid plan, the Oregon Health Plan, which offers insurance to residents under 133 percent of the poverty level. Yet, 30 percent of Oregonians have trouble paying medical bills and 10 percent have forgone medical care due to cost. Activists hope the ballot initiative will close the gap. 

“There’s still a big cost to the worker, there’s the copay, there’s all of these things that factor into like, even though we’ve been able to negotiate health care, are people actually able to have access to it, and be able to use it?” said Renee Ruiz, a Health Care for All Oregon board member and Oregon Nurses Association organizer. She believes that the initiative would help residents get preemptive care, which would help people avoid expensive emergency room visits.  

Nearly one-third of state constitutions mention health, yet none guarantee health care for residents. States are generally reluctant to identify express, enforceable rights to health care for all. Though no state has declared health care as a right, the states that do mention health care in their constitutions saw a reduction in the infant mortality rate of approximately 7.8 percent, according to a study. The health benefits were most evident in non-white communities.

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