Rush to Judgment Week – Except for Health Care

This will be a busy week for legislators and anyone else who cares about what's happening in Salem. That's because Thursday, April 21, is the first of a series of important deadlines when a bill must move in its house of origin or die. Except, of course, for health care bills.

Actually, nothing is ever dead until the legislature adjourns "sine die."  But that's another story.

The first deadline is causing a flurry of activity as legislators try to avert having pet bills tossed on the scrap heap by imploring their colleagues with committee chair gavels to schedule their bills for action. 

Lobbyists are doing the same, though they don't have one of the main points of access – access to House and Senate members on their respective floors, where lobbyists are prohibited.

Some issues aren't subject to the deadlines, such as bills in the Joint Ways and Means or the Revenue and Rules committees in the House and Senate. 
One example is the Joint House and Senate Committee on Health Care Transformation, which has met only twice and now will be meeting every Wednesday evening to craft legislation that is one of the Governor Kithzaber's top priorities.

The Salem Statesman-Journal <link>, in a front page story Sunday, described the transformation bill this way:

A draft of the bill authorizing coordinated care organizations is expected to be released by legislative staff Monday. It will go to a joint House-Senate committee, which is not bound by Thursday's deadline for most policy committees to complete action on bills originating in their chambers

Whatever legislation emerges from this session is likely to be refined by lawmakers when they return in February, a few months before the start of the second year of the state budget cycle on July 1, 2012.

Oregon's state budget problems may lead to changes that promise to save money and improve health care for low-income people — and perhaps thousands more.

Although they have not yet agreed on details, the "transformation" sought by Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber is drawing together lawmakers from both parties and doctors, hospitals and other health-care providers.

"We all agree something has to be done," said Rep. Jim Thompson, R-Dallas, co-chairman of the House Health Care Committee and one of nine members of a joint committee responsible for converting Kitzhaber's proposal into legislation.

Details still could derail it, Thompson said, but the idea is that while doctors remain in charge, patients could be seen by other professionals on the same team whose job is to keep them healthy

The changes at first would affect only the 550,000 recipients on the Oregon Health Plan, which serves low-income people — about one of every seven Oregonians. But Kitzhaber said that if the coordinated-care model works to improve care to recipients while saving money for the state budget, it could extend to state employees and private insurance.

No one is sure how the transformation proposal will fare. If it were voted on today, several sources at the Capitol say it wouldn't pass. It's just too big and so much is unknown about the consequences.  But with a couple months of meetings ahead, that could change.

For his part, the governor told the joint committee a week ago he wants "a framework bill" to pass before the end of June. That would allow all of the parties to work under the framework to craft a more detailed bill for consideration next year.

At the end of the Statesman-Journal story, Providence Health & Services CEO Greg Van Pelt put it this way to illustrate the crying need for action:
"We have reached the point where holding onto the current system is a lot worse than changing it."

Footnote:  The author of this post has represented Providence Health & Services in Salem for 20 years.

Caption: This week is do or die for bills left in policy committees at the Oregon legislature. Health care reform efforts are exempt from the deadline, but could be on life support if legislators can't agree on key principles.