Uninsured on the rise

SALEM, Ore. (AP) – Amid a shrinking Oregon Health Plan, Congress’ cuts in Medicaid funding and high unemployment, the number of Oregonians who lack health insurance has risen to 613,000, according to a study released Monday.

Health care activists said at a news conference that the result is a “crisis” in which many uninsured adults cannot afford preventative care or prescription drugs, and end up in hospital emergency rooms.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which focuses on improving health care through grants, studied government census and Centers for Disease Control Statistics and found that 19 percent of working adults in Oregon don’t have health insurance, the ninth-highest level in the nation.

The jump in uninsured Oregonians is “huge” according to Maribeth Healy of Oregonians for Health Care. The number of uninsured Oregonians increased by nearly 200,000 from 2002 to the 2004 census, Healy said.

Vern Smith, 51, is one example of the one in five uninsured Oregonians.

Smith suffered from multiple chronic health problems, including diabetes and high cholesterol, which made him unable to work.

He and his wife were on the Oregon Health Plan, but when she got a job the couple became ineligible, even though her work didn’t offer her insurance and they still couldn’t afford to purchase it.

In March, Smith suffered a heart attack that sent him to the emergency room to get three stints in his heart. The bill was $100,000, which he said they cannot afford.

“It’s time for the Legislature to stand up for Oregonians like me,” Smith said at the press conference.

But with a tight budget, the Legislature has limited options this session to improve access to health insurance.

Neither Gov. Ted Kulongoski nor the Legislature’s budget-writers are proposing any additional money for the Oregon Health Plan, the state-sponsored plan for those who don’t qualify for Medicaid.

Still, one lawmaker is determined to find solutions.

Sen. Ben Westlund, R-Tumalo, joined Smith at the press conference, along with health care workers and advocates, and called the situation a “crisis.”

“This is insanity. It has got to stop,” Westlund said of the nearly one in five Oregonians who lack health insurance.

Westlund said the cost of uninsured patients going to the emergency room – where by law they cannot be refused treatment – gets passed on to all Oregonians in higher health care costs.

Westlund said he wants to create a task force that would look into how to improve the situation in Oregon, including inefficiencies in the Department of Human Services, drug costs and how federal Medicaid and Medicare dollars are used.

Congress last week cut Medicaid by $10 billion, which will result in a $274 million cut to Oregon’s Medicaid program over the next five years, according Healy.

At the same time, the state’s chronic budget problems have forced legislators to scale back on several programs, including the Oregon Health Plan that covers the state’s “working poor,” which will be cut to about 25,000 people served next month, down from as many as 120,000 Oregonians covered in 1994.