SALEM, Ore. — Oregon's Legislature took a step Tuesday toward enshrining the right to health care in the state Constitution, which would be unprecedented in the United States.
The House of Representatives' 35-25 endorsement of the bill sends it to the state Senate, whose approval would put it on the ballot for Oregon voters in the November election. The move comes as the Trump administration has tried to dismantle former President Barack Obama's health care law.
Those who spoke out in favor of the bill in a debate on the House floor said no Oregonian should lack access to medical care, but opponents said there is no plan to fund it and warned that it would make the state vulnerable to lawsuits.
During debate before the vote, Rep. Mitch Greenlick stood up and in a frail voice described how he had been diagnosed with lymphoma in 2005, and how he relied on insurance to pay the huge costs of treatment.
"If I didn't have insurance, I wouldn't be here," the Democrat from Portland said. "I would be dead."
He urged lawmakers to pass the bill as "a moral decision."
Rep. Mike McLane, the House Republican leader, tried to convince legislators to vote no by highlighting the uncertainties about how health care would be funded in Oregon.
"What's been said today is there is no plan. We have no idea how much it will cost," McLane said.
"Having this go to the voters in November will reaffirm that and send an important value statement about the importance of health care, particularly as you see at the federal level there are a lot of efforts to scale back Medicaid and Medicare," House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Democrat, told reporters.
If the bill is also passed by the Senate, Oregon voters would be asked in the November ballot to approve or reject a constitutional amendment saying the state "must ensure that every resident of Oregon has access to cost-effective, medically appropriate and affordable health care."
Kotek said the goal of the legislation is "primarily aspirational" and that if the ballot measure passes, details would need to be worked out about the state's health care commitments.
Asked if a person could sue the state if the constitutional amendment passes and they are denied seeing a medical specialist, Kotek said that is unclear.
"Somewhere down the line that will be someone else's conversation," she said. "I think whenever you put anything into the Oregon Constitution, it sets a framework of future effort."
Amending the constitution to establish health care as a right would be unprecedented in the United States, according to Richard Cauchi of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"Some states have an extensive history of considering universal health coverage, going back 15 to 20 or more years," Cauchi said. "However, no such binding ballot question language has been passed and added to a state constitution."