Insured Oregonians dwindling

SALEM, Ore. – High unemployment, rising health care costs and a shrinking Oregon Health Plan have left a rising number of Oregonians without health insurance, according to a survey released Tuesday.

The survey also indicated that, despite ups and downs in state funding for schools, people are generally pleased with the quality of education students are receiving in Oregon’s public schools.

The extensive population survey is conducted every two years by the Oregon Progress Board and 16 other state agencies.

The latest survey found that 17 percent, or 609,000 Oregonians, are without health insurance, up from 14 percent in 2002. More than 18 percent of employed Oregonians lack health insurance.

Cuts in the Oregon Health Plan are a factor in the "tragedy" of fewer insured Oregonians, said Bruce Goldberg, head of Oregon’s Office of Health Policy and Research.

Currently, about 39,000 Oregonians are covered under the health program’s "standard" plan, which covers low-income adults who don’t qualify for Medicaid.

In his recommended budget for the coming two years, Gov. Ted Kulongoski proposed limiting coverage to 25,000, a sharp reduction from enrollment of more than 100,000 in 2001 – before the recession forced cuts in the program.

State Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, said the study underscores the need for the 2005 Legislature to revitalize the Health Plan.

Bates, who is a doctor, said he hasn’t seen all the research, but he’s hopeful the legislature will be able to avoid the governor’s proposed cuts in the program.

State Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, chairwoman of the Senate Health Policy Committee, also said she’s working on legislation to make health insurance more affordable and allow small businesses to offer coverage for their employees.

Finding ways to provide insurance to some of the people who have been knocked off the state Health Plan is another goal, the Gresham Democrat said.

"We’re going to have a real big task on our plate," Monnes Anderson said.

Despite political battles over school funding, Oregonians are still happy with the education system in general, according to the Progress Board’s survey.

Community colleges still got the highest ratings, with 88 percent of those surveyed rating them favorably, the same as 2002. Four-year colleges and universities have an 82 percent favorable rating.

Oregon’s public school system education got a 3 percent bump from 2002, with 64 percent giving it a thumbs-up.

"We asked them about quality," said Jeffrey Tryens, executive director for the Progress Board. "We didn’t ask if school was getting enough funding."

Kulongoski proposed a $5 billion school budget for the coming two years, a slight increase over the current budget.

Still, education advocates and parents’ groups say the figure is $400 million short of what’s needed to avoid teacher layoffs and shortened school years in some districts.

In contrast, the overall perception of government services dropped to 60 percent favorable rating, which researchers said possibly is a reflection of "continued budget cutbacks" in social services and other areas.