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National Review Online


Universal Health Care Revived?

November 01, 2002

By David Gratzer

As November 5 approaches, citizens are focusing closely on their own state's ballot initiatives. But one could have greater national implications than any other: Oregon's Measure 23.

To be sure, a referendum in Oregon—a state of just 3.3 million people—is hardly the stuff of front-page headlines. And Measure 23 appears almost certainly headed for defeat. Still, the race may be worth a second look. Indeed, it may mark the return of the health-care issue.

Measure 23, awkwardly titled the Oregon Comprehensive Health Care Finance Act of 2002, would create the nation's first universal health-care plan, allowing every man, woman, and child in Oregon to receive full medical insurance with no co-payments or deductibles.

If business has been reluctant to endorse the initiative, others have been more kind. The Democratic party of Oregon, the American Federation of Teachers, and the local NAACP are all supporters. But what's truly impressive is the extent to which ordinary Oregonians have taken an interest. Supporters of Measure 23 managed to collect nearly 10,000 signatures in under ten days to get the plan on the ballot. More amazing still, the vast majority of those signatures were collected by volunteers, not paid canvassers.

Recently, an independent pollster found that support for Measure 23 trailed opposition by only 40 percent to 47 percent. The result is particularly remarkable given that the measure's supporters are being outspent, perhaps by as much as 20 to 1. But the biggest problem is not the money gap—it's the plan. Measure 23 promises the Cadillac of health care—all "medically necessary" services would be covered. Thus, the list is long, including long-term care, massage therapy, and some alternative medicines. Critics charge that Measure 23 would allow people to get massages four times a week—at the taxpayers' expense. "It's the richest benefits package known to man," quips J.L. Wilson, head of the Oregon chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business. So overreaching is the plan—and with such stifling tax hikes—that even traditional allies of single-payer health care, like the AFL-CIO, have not signed on. Still, it's interesting that the initiative has gotten as far as it has. Consider: A half-baked plan is offered that promises major tax hikes—and the poll numbers are still reasonable.

It would be easy to dismiss Oregon's flirtation with socialized medicine as simply a local phenomenon. Oregon, after all, has been the no. 1 practitioner of the initiative system, voting on more than 300 citizen-proposed measures since 1902. Many have raised eyebrows; few have had national implications. Still, Measure 23 and its surprising popularity go well beyond West Coast social liberalism. Rather, the initiative reflects widespread middle-class angst about health care.

Forget that much of this fretting is unfounded. It's true that the number of uninsured Americans is up this year—but the total is still below the levels of the late 1990s. And even in this harsh economy, most Americans have access to quality health care, something countries with public health-care systems can't honestly claim for their own citizens (trust me, I'm a Canadian).

But Americans aren't convinced. In a poll the Kennedy School of Government and the Kaiser Foundation conducted of more than a thousand people with health insurance, a full 28 percent said they are very worried they will no longer be able to afford their coverage. Another 22 percent are very worried that their benefits will be cut substantially. And 18 percent are very worried they will lose their coverage altogether.

Which makes it understandable that a state that voted for Al Gore by the narrowest of margins in 2000 could seriously consider an initiative that doesn't warrant sober thought.

Commenting recently on Measure 23, Rachel DeGolia of the Cleveland-based Universal Health Care Action Network noted that the Oregon effort is picking up where Hillary Rodham Clinton left off a decade ago. And that's the point. For over a decade now, health care has been an issue to handle very gently. Ever since the ambitious plans of the Clintons went sour, the proposals have been modest, limited to small ideas like a Patient's Bill of Rights and extended coverage for defined groups. Even Sen. Clinton's official web site is vague on health-care reform.

Middle-class angst, however, is growing. So the Era of Big Health Reform may have returned to Oregon—and to America.

Original Source:



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