Lawmakers Anticipate Busy February Session

Anticipating a busy 2012 session, lawmakers will hold three more sets of "legislative committee days" before February to tee up issues as they nervously await two more revenue forecasts that could determine whether budget-cutting will be a focus of their attention.

Here are three examples of what we already know will be on the agenda:

Ways and Means leaders Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, and Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, may need to make budget adjustments in February.STATE REVENUE: Taking stock of a volatile state budget is an obvious reason for annual sessions. This time, the stakes will be very high as the state struggles to emerge from a stubborn recession.

August's forecast, released two weeks ago, showed state tax revenue declined by almost $200 million from projections at the end of the legislative session last June. While new State Economist Mike McMullen did not predict an "echo recession," he noted a loss of consumer confidence following congressional wrangling over the federal deficit.

The $200 million drop in revenue can be managed with the reserve legislators wrote into the budget, but deeper declines could mean more cuts.

HEALTH CARE TRANSFORMATION: Last session, Governor John Kitzhaber made a big deal out of his proposal to reform health care by creating "Coordinated Care Organizations" (CCOs). However, by passing House Bill 3650 at the governor's request, legislators only set the policy; they did not allow for implementation of the new CCOs, which will be designed to coordinate health care services for low-income Oregonians. The new CCOs, none of which has been formed yet, will be responsible for "global budgets," a slight variation on the old system of capitation where insurance-like entities got money for health care, and they had to bear the risk of managing within the money.

There is a big question about whether organizations now in the business of providing low-income health care services — including hospitals, insurers and managed care organizations — will be willing or able to assume the new, huge risk, which, in the past, has been borne by state government. Critics of the CCO idea suggest that the real, behind-the-scenes goal is to get access to the surplus or reserve funds held by major, private health care players in the state. There has been no proof of this, however.

Still, in February, legislators will have to consider legislation to create the CCOs and hope private sector players step up to the plate to assume the new responsibility. Plus, the legislatively approved budget for the Oregon Health Authority already assumes that the new entities will be able to save $240 million in state general fund dollars in the second year of the biennium. Chalk that up either to fantasy or aggressive goal-setting.

HEALTH INSURANCE EXCHANGE: Another bill passed last session created a Health Insurance Exchange, essentially a new marketplace for consumers to shop for health insurance deals. The idea of state exchanges was mandated by ObamaCare, so the legislature followed through to create the new option in Oregon so one would not be imposed here by the federal government. But, again, like "Health Care Transformation," the Exchange won't exist until the legislature approves a "business plan" in February.

For these issues — and others on the agenda — the legislature will only have about 35 days to take action, finishing by March 5. March 6, the day after the session ends, is the final filing day for the May and November elections.

The writer, CFM partner Dave Fiskum, has lobbied in Oregon for more than 30 years and represents major health care organizations, among others.