|Bennett's Blog: Hear the train acomin'?|
|Bennett's Blog: Hear the train acomin'?|
by Chuck Bennett, Director of Governmental Relations
Train songs -- from the ones that talk about lonely whistles on the prairie to show tunes about the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe -- are some of the most popular music in America.
They recall simpler times, open spaces, lost love, or just the feeling that if things aren't going right there's always a way out.
In politics (at least the brand practiced in Salem), trains, tracks and all the attendent metaphors are signals that a law is about to be passed and there isn't much that can be done about it as in, "That train has left the station," or, "I'm not standing on those tracks," and the ever popular, "I see the train acomin'." And that's the way lobbyists and legislators are talking about SB 426.
SB 426 is the bill from the Oregon Education Association and its annex in the Governor's office (former OEA President Jim Sager and chief lobbyist Chip Terhune hold down the fort as top education advisor and chief of staff, respectively). It creates the Oregon Educators' Benefit Board and puts all other health insurance providers out of the school business.
The arguments for and against the proposal have been rolling around the Capitol for nearly six years but this Session, with a successful election of majority Democrats in both the House and Senate and re-election of the Governor under their belt, OEA took one more turn through the roundhouse. In previous sessions the bill had been sidetracked by Republicans who have agreed with school district and Oregon School Board Association assessements that the plan will at best fail to deliver on promised savings, which have dwindled from $200 million to maybe $40 million this year. At worst, OSBA has developed statistics that indicate major insurance rate hikes are looming after the bill's passage.
There have been several attempts to slow the bill down long enough to determine which side is right -- will there or won't there be savings if the bill passes? To no avail. Sponsors and supporters have argued successfully that the idea of a school insurance pool has been studied to death (literally for three sessions the bill died in committee) and now's the time to see what really happens if it passes.
You read that right. Supporters or at least those who are planning to vote for the bill are being surprisingly honest -- "Okay," they say, "his might not work and it might even cost school districts a lot of money but how will we ever know if we don't try it?" That argument makes sense if you're talking about whether to buy dark or milk chocolate covered cherries but when you're throwing out 40 years of stable health plans used by tens of thousands of Oregonians even if they are publicly employed educators, it doesn't seem such a reasonable experiment.
Even more troubling is that the insurance carrier that writes the current OSBA Trust plan that covers about 85% of districts and is the only likley candidate to offer statewide covereage under the statewide insurance pool proposed by OEA and the Governor, is getting very concerned that this plan could become law.
Regence BlueCross BlueShield president Dr. J. Bart McMullan has taken it seriously enough that he wrote the committee that will vote on the bill tomorrow and expressed real concerns. Here's what the guy who'll probably be selling the state the insurance they will get if the bill passes has to say:
"SB 426 is not just about health insurance. It is also about serving the best interst of Oregon's children and the community at large. Given Oregon's struggle with school funding, we beleive that reducing administrative costs where possible is a worthy -- and necessary -- endeavor. It is critical that such efforts be supported with accurate facts and reasonable assumptions. Our primary concern with SB 426 is that the projected cost savings associated with it are unfounded and untested."
Remember, this is the president of the company that will probably get the book of business no matter what happens in the Legislature. In most cases, he would be what is called an informed and disinterested observor. In some circles it is refined to, "he owns both dogs in the fight."
Dr. McMullan goes on to say that, "in theory there are potential savings to be gained from pooling and economies of scale. Our disagreement with the projected savings in this case, stems from attempts to extrapolate the projected cost savings from other states with educational pooling mechanisms."
He goes on to criticize the bill's exemption for Portland and North Clackamas where some of the highest premiums are currently being paid. "It may interest the Subcommittee to know that one of our largest districts in the state, with one of the highest cost for benefits, currently operates an independent health insurance trust. These exclusions further erode the opportunity for cost savings."
So what can be done? COSA along with every other objective observor (including Dr. McMullan) have suggested that there be a current, objective, independent analysis of the proposal before passing the legislation. So far the legislature has refused to follow that course. Instead, the bill is being rushed through the legislative process before opposition to it can build. Plans now are to have a vote on it tomorrow morning in the full Ways & Means Committee and have it voted out of both chambers of the legislature next week. There will be no hearings regarding the policy issues in the House. It's only discussion will have been confined to the budget writing Ways & Means Committee subcommittee on Education and the Senate Education Committee.
This becomes critical for proponents as opposition is beginning to build among OEA members who are only now finding out what the Tigard office has in store for them. Already teachers' unions in Beaverton and David Douglas have announced opposition to the plan. Community College educators are only now finding out that despite a promised exemption, they will be sucked into the plan when their current insurer, OSBA Trust, goes out of the statewide insurance business.
So, if you think you hear a whistle blowing, don't look far for the train producing it.
|This page was last updated on Tuesday, March 06, 2007 .|