State Sen. Chris Telfer has put forward what she's billing as "a community-based solution to the health care crisis." It looks to us like an idea worth exploring - but whether it's the "solution" is another story.
Telfer, a freshman Republican from Bend, has introduced a bill (SB 862) that would enable Oregon communities to set up health insurance plans for low- and moderate-income workers based on the model of Access Health in Muskegon, MI.
Access Health is called a "three-share" program because employers and employees each pay 30% of the cost and the community pays the rest. To participate, workers must be full-time, permanent employees (not seasonal, temporary or independent contractors) and meet certain income guidelines. The current employee premium for Access Health is around $49 per month.
Access Health has spawned imitators across the country, including Health Matters of Central Oregon, which is just getting off the ground. Other similar programs have been created in Klamath, Lane, and Union, Baker and Wallowa Counties.
"This model is successful because it is built on the collaboration of all concerned parties: employees, employers, providers and the local community," Telfer said in a news release. "As a legislative body, we must recognize that health care is local - and that it's our obligation to help create an environment for collaboration and innovation so communities can meet their unique needs."
Like we said at the beginning, Telfer has an interesting idea that could help out people who make too much money to qualify for the Oregon Health Plan but not enough to afford private insurance. But is it the "solution to the national health care crisis"? Sorry, no way.
For one thing, programs like Access Health help only a limited group of people - low- to moderate-income, full-time, permanent employees. They do nothing for the unemployed, the part-time employed, the seasonally employed or the independently employed. The Michigan plan that Telfer holds forth as a shining example of success serves only 1,150 people; according to Health Matters for Oregon, there are roughly 30,000 uninsured people in Central Oregon.
And the uninsured are only one aspect of the health care mess. Even for those lucky enough to have insurance, premiums are soaring, and high deductibles and co-pays make health care ridiculously expensive, if not completely unaffordable. And then there's the disgraceful waste, inefficiency and ineffectiveness of our system - a system that has us spending more on health care and getting less for it than any other developed nation.
Finally, as the Employee Benefit Research Institute noted in a 2005 report, such programs are vulnerable to the changing political winds: "Access Health's greatest financial vulnerability rests on the uncertain continued availability of the monies it uses to subsidize the program. Increasingly, the federal government is scrutinizing mechanisms used by some states to obtain federal matching funds. As a result, the largest of the three shares - the community share that is subsidized by federal DSH funds - could be reduced or redirected in the future. In addition, state fiscal problems could result in fewer federal matching dollars, which has the potential of affecting Access Health sustainability."
So while we can't fault Telfer for trying, she and other lawmakers need to recognize that the national health care crisis is a broad and deep wound, and it's doubtful that Band-Aids like this one can do much to stanch the bleeding.