Oregon Ballot Measure On Children's Health Insurance

Tuesday, November 6th 2007, 7:22 am
By: News On 6

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ When Oregon residents weigh in Tuesday on whether to raise the state's cigarette tax to pay for an expansion of children's health care, their votes could resonate 3,000 miles away on Capitol Hill.

Congress and the Bush administration have been wrangling over the same concept in their showdown over federal spending on the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

``If Oregon votes in the affirmative for this, it will be a shot in the arm,'' said U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland. ``It will be harder for some people to ignore what the public sentiment is. Maybe they can ignore the polls, but this would be a signal victory.''

On the flip side, if the measure fails in Oregon, widely viewed as a liberal-leaning state, it will be a serious setback for children's health advocates and a notch in the belt of tobacco companies.

``It's the symbolism,'' said Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who vigorously campaigned in support of the measure, even donating $200,000 from his own political action committee. ``If you can defeat it here in Oregon, you send a chilling message to the rest of the country.''

Both sides seem keenly aware of the high stakes of the debate, the only ballot measure of its kind in the country this year. Tobacco companies, led by Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, have spent nearly $12 million, making it the most expensive ballot measure campaign in the state's history.

That's about $3.33 for every one of Oregon's 3.7 million residents, and at least a dollar more per capita than the $60 million the tobacco industry spent to persuade California's 36 million residents to defeat a similar measure in 2006.

``The industry is going completely berserk in Oregon to stop this tax,'' said Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California at San Francisco. ``The stakes are higher, because the tobacco industry will use (a win) as part of their argument against SCHIP.''

Supporters of the proposal, known as Measure 50, can't match the tobacco industry dollar for dollar, although health insurance companies and hospitals have kicked in substantial donations.

They do have the state's uninsured children on their side, along with their families, who have starred in TV ads and mailers telling stories of debt and heartbreak.

``I worry about it every day,'' said Robin Abbott, a mother of two whose husband works as a chef, but gets no health coverage from his job. ``It would really destroy us. I just hope that nothing happens.''

She recently took her 15-month-old son, Jackson, to a nonprofit clinic for routine blood tests to detect the presence of lead and iron. She has no idea what the testing cost.

``I was afraid to ask,'' Abbott said. ``They are going to send me the bill.''

Under the proposal, the state tax on a pack of cigarettes would rise from 84 cents to $2.02. That would be one of the highest in the nation, behind only Rhode Island and New Jersey.

The new tax would raise an estimated $153 million in its first year and a half, state budget officials have said, enough to eventually insure about 100,000 children who have no coverage.

About half of those children are from families who make more than twice the federal poverty limit _ about $41,000, for a family of four _ but don't get health care at work and can't independently afford the cost of private insurance.

Oregon families who make between $41,000 and $62,000 would be able to pay on a sliding scale for subsidized care.

That's the same concept that has piqued President Bush and some of his GOP allies in the SCHIP debate. They argue that expanding federal matching dollars for state programs that fund children's health coverage will inspire middle-class families to abandon private insurers in droves.

Campaigning against the Oregon proposal, tobacco companies have hit some of the same notes as they have in the national debate, questioning whether government can be trusted to manage the new funding.

``We continue to believe that funding any expanding programs with declining revenue sources doesn't make sense,'' said David Sutton, a spokesman for Philip Morris.

The tobacco industry hasn't addressed the ethics of whether it's fair to make only 20 percent or so of the state's population shell out for a tax that will benefit the population at large. But smokers have plenty to say on the topic.

``If they want to tax me 84 cents for some sort of an insurance program to benefit children, that's fine, as long as I know everyone else is paying 84 cents, too,'' Marilyn Sampsel said recently as she worked her way through a pack of Benson & Hedges cigarettes at a Portland bar. ``When we start taxing dockworkers to build new bridges, that's when we can start taxing smokers to pay for everyone else's health problems.''