Ruth Rava
Ruth Rava
Voters are deciding how to pay for a part of the Oregon Health Plan that offers medical care to the working poor. Measure 101, if approved, would retain a tax on health providers to cover costs for about 160,000 Oregonians.  

Ballots are due by 8 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 23.

For Catholics, Measure 101 can get complicated. Many members of the church, including leaders of health providers Providence and PeaceHealth, support the measure because it offers life-saving aid to people on the peripheries. Some pro-life advocates urge a no-vote, since the Oregon Health Plan includes coverage for contraception and abortion.

The Oregon Catholic Conference, political arm of the Archdiocese of Portland and the Diocese of Baker, has not taken a position on Measure 101.

This summer, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill providing additional state funding to the $9.3 billion Oregon Health Plan, which covers a total of 1 million people and runs mostly on federal money with state contributions. Three Republican representatives — Julie Parrish of West Linn, Cedric Hayden of Roseburg, and Sal Esquivel of Medford — objected to the part of the bill that taxes Oregon hospitals and insurers. The three lawmakers decided to refer that portion to voters, sparking Measure 101.

The measure’s tax on health providers keeps Oregon Health Plan benefits flowing to households that struggle to purchase insurance but make too much money to qualify for federal funds. The extension goes to people who earn between 100 percent and 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The upper end of that scale comes in at $16,100 for an individual and $32,900 for a family of four.

If Measure 101 fails, the legislature might continue funding medical coverage for these working poor families — or might not. There would be a hole of $840 million to $1.3 billion to fill. Those at or below the poverty level will continue to be eligible for the Oregon Health Plan no matter what voters decide.

Measure 101 also funds a program to reduce premiums for about 200,000 people who buy their own insurance because they don’t have coverage on the job.

Opponents of Measure 101, including the Oregonian newspaper, say providers and insurers will increase premiums to pay for the tax, which unfairly focuses on health plans purchased by small businesses, school districts and nonprofits. Supporters say the costs to patients may not change soon, if at all, but that even if health care prices do rise, it’s necessary.

“Providence supporting Measure 101 is absolutely in alignment with our mission to show God’s love for all through our compassionate service, especially for the poor and vulnerable,” said Jessica Adamson, director of government relations for Providence Health & Services in Oregon. “We are not willing to back away from our commitment to provide access to healthcare.”

Adamson said that if Measure 101 fails, the legislature has no plan B. Providence fears that low income people will again use emergency rooms for health care, an expensive option.

“Consistent with our mission and values, PeaceHealth believes everyone should have access to affordable health care,” said Brian Shipley, PeaceHealth’s vice president of government affairs. “PeaceHealth supports Measure 101 because it helps to preserve coverage and access for vulnerable Oregon residents.”

Opponents of Measure 101 say the position of health providers is not altruistic. Hospitals would be obligated to provide care free of charge for those who get knocked off the Oregon Health Plan.

Ruth Rava, head of St. Mary Parish Respect Life Committee in Mount Angel, said she supports health help for poor Oregonians, but not with the link to abortion and contraception. She cited the U.S. Catholic bishops’ document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which says health care must respect human life and human dignity.

“There are a lot of reasons to vote no, but the primary motivation should be that a portion of this tax will go to paying for abortion and contraception,” Rava said.

She and other pro-life backers say the legislature’s move came suspiciously close on the heels of another bill, in which legislators approved free abortions in Oregon. Supporters of Measure 101 include Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon.

“Planned Parenthood and NARAL are fostering this,” said Jerry Schindler, a member of St. Mary Parish in Mount Angel. Schindler argued that the implications of the measure are “totally opposed to the Catholic faith.”

Oregon Right to Life has taken no position.

But for those like Schindler, the extension of the Oregon Health Plan is linked to the Affordable Care Act, which never won approval from the U.S. Catholic bishops, despite their decades of advocacy for wider access to health care. The bishops saw abortion the provision as poison for the whole act. 

On the other hand, longtime Catholic priests are voicing support for Measure 101. 

“The bishops of this country for years have said basic health care is a right,” said Msgr. Chuck Lienert, a veteran pastor who also was an archdiocesan official. “Measure 101 may not be the best solution, but it is a solution. It is telling that health providers are for it. If it doesn’t pass, a lot of people are going to be without health care.”

Father Joseph McMahon, another longtime pastor in western Oregon, said Measure 101 is especially important for laborers and rural Oregonians — many of whom belong to Catholic parishes. He said he understands the abortion funding fear, but argued it is wrong to deny health care to the many people not seeking abortions. Father McMahon added that health workers may lose their jobs if the measure fails.

“Protecting health care for the state’s most vulnerable is important to me as a Catholic,” said Christy Mason, a member of St. Andrew Parish who is deputy director of Our Oregon, a nonprofit that also promotes school funding, social programs and environmental protection.

If Measure 101 passes, the provisions would expire by 2019, when the debate would emerge again.