Oregon Coalition Starts Campaigning for Human Right to Health Care

Taking a page from Vermont’s playbook, Oregon reform advocates plan to launch a major campaign to have health care declared a human right.

“It means you get the care you need when you need it,” said Dr. Mike Huntington of Corvallis, the newly elected president of Health Care for All-Oregon.              

The statewide organization’s ultimate goal remains single-payer health care — a taxpayer-funded system that would cover medical, mental and dental treatment for all Oregon residents, replacing private health insurance.

But despite some support in Salem, single-payer bills have never gotten very far in the Legislature.

Now, Huntington said, it’s time for a new tactic: a broad-based effort to mobilize public support for the notion that everyone deserves access to health care.

“We realized from others’ experience — primarily from Vermont — that it doesn’t really matter how good your argument is,” Huntington said. “It’s how well you can move people.”

In 2011, a three-year grass-roots organizing campaign led by the Vermont Workers Center culminated in a legislative declaration that access to health care should be considered a fundamental right [NESRI note: this is incorrect, no such declaration was considered in Vermont]. The state also passed the most far-reaching health reforms in the country, setting the stage for a single-payer system.

“The idea of health care as a human right resonated very well,” Huntington said. “We’re following their lead.”

Huntington aims to copy that strategy, gathering photo petitions from Oregonians suffering under the current system, dispatching speakers to address civic groups and holding house parties to spread the gospel of a universal right to health care.

The idea is to first generate a groundswell of public support and then push for a joint resolution in the Oregon Legislature.

Rep. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, a longtime single-payer advocate, plans to work on the issue from the House side. A human rights declaration, he said, would go a long way toward advancing the cause of universal coverage for all Oregonians.

“It would clarify that this is something the Legislature should be working on,” Dembrow said. “The first step is really to get that public commitment that health care is not just an individual issue. We have a stake in it as a society.”

Huntington brings solid credentials to his new role as head of the state’s largest health care reform group.

A retired radiation oncologist, he helped organize the Oregon chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program in 2007. Two years later, he teamed up with fellow Corvallis physician Paul Hochfeld and several Portland-area practitioners to launch the Mad as Hell Doctors.

The group set off on a cross-country road show to tout the benefits of single-payer care, holding town hall meetings in 26 cities and capping the journey with a rally in Washington, D.C., where Congress was hashing out the details of Obamacare. The Mad Docs have remained active, following up their national tour with shorter jaunts through California and Oregon.

As head of Health Care for All-Oregon, Huntington said, he will continue to push for universal, not-for-profit coverage both statewide and nationally.

“We are strengthening our ties with other organizations around the nation that are doing the same thing,” he said. “We’re trading ideas on how we can succeed.”

And Huntington has a re-energized Health Care for All-Oregon to back him up. At the same April 13 meeting in Portland where Huntington was elected president, the organization bequeathed its name to the Oregon Single-Payer Campaign, a 2-year-old coalition of labor unions and health care advocates.

Health Care for All-Oregon was formed in the 1990s to promote a single-payer health care system. But it suffered a stinging defeat at the ballot box when Measure 23 lost by 700,000 votes in 2002 and had been largely dormant since then.

Inspired by the rapid rise of the Oregon Single-Payer Campaign, the older group’s leaders decided to pass the torch.

“At board meetings we kept discussing this and said, ‘We don’t need two organizations’” promoting universal health care, said longtime board member Betty Johnson of Corvallis.

“We could just see the kind of energy that this organization was trying to create.”

The Oregon Single-Payer Campaign — which grew out of a partnership between Health Care for All-Oregon, Portland Jobs With Justice, the Mad as Hell Doctors and Physicians for a National Health Program — drew 500 people to a conference in Portland last year.

Some 28 labor unions, nonprofits and advocacy groups were represented at another conference this January, and the coalition’s ranks have continued to swell. Now that the group has assumed the mantle of Health Care for All-Oregon, some 46 organizations have signed on, including some of the state’s largest labor unions.

The membership now includes the Oregon Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers-Oregon, the Oregon Nurses Association and locals of the Communication Workers of America, Service Employees International Union and International Association of Machinists.

“There’s several other big unions thinking very seriously about it,” said Peter Shapiro of Portland Jobs With Justice.

Universal health care can be a touchy subject for union leaders, who are reluctant to give ground on hard-won insurance benefits. But rising health care costs are already undermining many of those gains, Shapiro said, and more and more labor leaders are warming to the cause.

“And I think, in terms of providing some institutional clout and organized muscle, unions have a big role to play in the single-payer movement,” he said.