Senators address ‘health care crisis’ with bill package

SALEM, Ore. (AP) – Senate Democrats moved to attack rising health care costs Tuesday with a package of bills intended to make access to treatment more affordable.

Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, said the proposals address rapid increases in insurance rates, prescription drug costs and hospital charges.

"Skyrocketing health care costs are eating up the family’s budget, the company’s budget and the state’s budget," she said.

Supporters of the package say hospital rates have increased at three times the rate of inflation, and those are the target of several bills.

One measure likely to encounter strong opposition would strengthen the "certificate of need" process that currently exists in Oregon, and would require a hospital to get public approval before expanding.

Monnes Anderson said hospitals are adding large and often unnecessary programs and buildings that duplicate services at nearby hospitals. Rather than engage in competition, she said, hospitals should spend more money on treating poor patients and meeting the actual needs of the community.

Ken Rutledge, president of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, disagrees with the bill, saying it would not lead to lower health-care costs.

"What we’re talking about is putting on overlays of regulatory structures to accomplish something that we’ve been able to do better than the highly regulated states," Rutledge said.

Rutledge said about 35 states have certificate of need programs, but they have not led to lower costs. In fact, he said, Oregon’s costs are among the 10 lowest in the nation for per capita hospital expenses, along with four other states that lack certificate of need programs.

Another bill introduced Tuesday would require hospitals to charge the same for treating uninsured patients as they do for those insured by Medicaid, Medicare and private insurers.

Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, said the bill is necessary because hospitals are charging the highest rates to uninsured patients.

Bates, a doctor, said because insurance companies and assistance programs are able to negotiate a rate with hospitals, the working poor end up getting "the highest rate that could possibly be charged."

Rutledge says the problem is not significant enough to warrant legislation. He said fewer than 5 percent of hospital business is comprised of patients without insurance who don’t qualify for free or reduced-cost care.

According to the most recent state figures, 17 percent of Oregonians lack health insurance.

Other bills in the package would expand the state’s prescription drug purchasing pool program to include people under 55, the current cutoff. Another would require insurance providers to hold public hearings to justify rate increases.

While the bills could pass out of the Democratic-controlled Senate, they might have a harder time getting through the Republican-controlled House.

Rep. Billy Dalto, R-Salem, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, said he sees "some good ideas and some not so good ideas" in the bills and he’s willing to consider anything that would make health care more affordable.