During the 2017 session of the Oregon Legislature, all eyes were focused on two "home run" issues: Revenue reform and a transportation package. One failed and one passed.
The Legislature also passed another bill that didn't get as much anticipation during the session, nor fanfare afterward. The "Cover All Kids" law will have profound effect on our state and should, perhaps, have been a lightning rod issue.
It hasn't been. Yet. But it's worthy of our praise.
Senate Bill 558 provides $36 million to cover health care for young people, ages 18 and younger, and changes the wording of the eligibility requirement from "lawfully present" to "any children who reside...." Which means: Yes, this law is aimed directly at health care coverage for the children of undocumented residents.
How many youths? Proponents say as many as 17,600 across the state; they did not break that down for Washington County.
This is a worthy idea from a public health perspective; from a conservative economic perspective; and from a humanitarian perspective. It's a victory for the bipartisanship that we found this year in abundance in the Legislature (and absolutely missing in Congress). And it comes at a time when rhetoric from the Trump administration has had a chilling effect on the vital immigrant population of our community.
First, decades of best practices in the public health arena have shown us that primary preventative care throughout life is the best way to increase the overall health of a community. Future adults in Oregon will be healthier if their younger selves are healthier today. Cover All Kids will provide insurance coverage for low-income families and, at places like Washington County's Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, that means access to regular checkups, childhood immunization, dental care, pharmacies, mental health care, behavioral health care and more.
It isn't just a cutesy phrase: an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.
Second, it's good economic policy because a few pennies spent on primary preventative care save many dollars down the road. Low-income families, with nowhere else to turn, wait until minor health concerns become fully bloomed crises, then they turn to emergency rooms for help. That is the most expensive form of health care, bar none. If your goal is saving taxpayer money, Cover All Kids is good lawmaking.
Third, it's the humanitarian thing to do. If you are opposed to illegal immigration — and that is an absolutely defensible political position — you can be angry about the economy, politics or violence in foreign countries that drive out their citizens; angry at the United States for having a porous border; and angry at adult immigrants who don't want to take the legal steps necessary to immigrate. But you can't honestly get angry at little kids who get fevers and ear aches and tooth aches. They will and they do, and Cover All Kids will make it easier for them to be seen by doctors. If we can all agree on one political tenet, make it this: Children do not get punished for the actions of their parents.
Cover All Kids also is another example (along with the transportation package, restricting guns in the hands of suicidal people, the Oregon Equal Pay Act, and Tobacco 21) of Oregon's bipartisan legislation. Supporters in the Senate include Republicans Brian Boquist and Jeff Kruse, with Democrats Laurie Monnes Anderson and Arnie Roblan. And in the House: Republicans John Huffman and Andy Olson, with Democrats Teresa Alonso Leon, Diego Hernandez and Alissa Keny-Guyer.
So what happens next? Outreach. And that's going to be the tough part. Many immigrant families — documented and undocumented — have stopped coming to facilities like Virginia Garcia, thanks to the rhetoric of the Trump administration. Virginia Garcia officials tell us walk-in visits are down, more immigrants are missing appointments, fewer immigrant students are using school-based health centers, and fewer older immigrants are sending their English-speaking kids to act as interpreters. And again: This includes legal immigrants.
Too many immigrants fear going to any official facility — be it a clinic or a courthouse or a city hall — for fear of being caught up in immigration sweeps.
So at the very time that more children of immigrant families are eligible for coverage, fewer immigrant families are trusting the system.
The Legislature deserves praise for Cover All Kids. And immigrant-focused health care providers need all possible help getting the word out.