Single-payer group turns 25

By Bennett Hall
Corvallis (Ore.) Gazette Times, July 21, 2016

Don’t let the name fool you.

Mid-Valley Health Care Advocates may sound like just another local nonprofit, but the Corvallis-based group’s impact and influence extend far beyond its regional roots.

As the group prepares to mark its 25th anniversary this week (see accompanying story for details), the organization is being celebrated for playing a strong leadership role in pushing for universal health care at the state and national level.

Formed by a committee of parishioners at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in 1991, it’s still going strong, with a mailing list of 1,400 names and a core group of about 200 active volunteers.

Then as now, rising health care costs were a major concern for many people in Oregon and around the country. In the early 1990s, however, the idea of single-payer health care — a government-sponsored health care program similar to Medicare that would cover all citizens in a single risk pool — was a foreign concept to most Americans.

“We were way ahead of our time,” said Betty Johnson, MVHCA’s first leader and still one of its most active volunteers. “It was a struggle to get people to sit down and have a conversation about health care reform.”

Today, with health care costs higher than ever before, the idea of a single-payer system is a much more familiar notion – in part because of the efforts of Johnson and other members.

Other original organizers still with the group say they stay involved because the issue is more important than ever.

“It’s clear that simplifying the system is not going to cost more, it’s going to cost less,” said Louise Ferrell. “The thing I’ve been interested in right from the beginning is one risk pool.”

Edie Orner cited the recent example of her granddaughter, who thought she had solid insurance as a student at Oregon State University but was forced into bankruptcy due to an expensive illness.

“That got me all fired up again,” Orner said. “I just want to get this passed before I leave this planet.”

And Maxine Eckes sees it as a question of economic justice.

“It’s really not a political issue,” she said. “It’s an economic issue.”

Still on the radar

Ellen Pinney, the former director of the Oregon Health Action Campaign and now the ombudsman with the Oregon Health Authority, gives Johnson and her mid-valley cohorts much of the credit for keeping the issue of single-payer health care on the state’s political radar all these years.

“They took that over and became the spearhead of health care reform in Oregon,” Pinney said.

She calls Johnson a “brilliant strategist” and a “master of process” who understands the importance of getting all the right people to the table to move the discussion of reform forward.

“You can’t say no to Betty,” Pinney added. “You can’t say no to a person who has that vision and shows you how much energy she has.”

As early as 1995, group members were testifying before the Oregon Legislature in support of a single-payer bill. The group helped launch Health Care for All-Oregon in 1999 and remains the largest single-issue member of the statewide coalition of more than 100 organizations supporting single payer.

In 2002, MVHCA — and Johnson in particular — led the charge for Ballot Measure 23, an initiative campaign to establish a statewide single-payer plan. The measure tanked at the ballot box, but that didn’t stop the mid-valley believers, who shifted their focus to working with state lawmakers to revive the idea of achieving universal health care through legislative action.

Members of the group established the Interfaith Health Care Network as well as a local chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program and acted as a support team for the Mad As Hell Doctors, a group of Oregon physicians who took their message of health care for all on the road around the state and across the country to Washington, D.C.

MVHCA has repeatedly traveled to Salem to rally with other single-payer supporters on the Capitol steps and has sponsored a steady stream of local forums, panel discussions, movie screenings and other events to educate area residents about health care reform.

And Johnson and Mike Huntington, a longtime MVHCA member and one of the Mad As Hell Docs, regularly participate in conference calls to strategize with single-payer advocates in other states.

“They’re extremely well-respected because they combine strong values with a strong work ethic and a lot of real-world expertise,” said state Sen. Michael Dembrow, a Portland Democrat who has emerged as the leading champion of single payer in Salem.

“Betty Johnson, Mike Huntington and other members have contacts all over the country, which is extremely helpful,” Dembrow added. “They’ve had a strong hand in every version of universal health care legislation I’ve submitted, and that partnership will continue until the job is done.”

In recent years, the group has played a role in getting the Legislature to approve and fund an economic study of single-payer versus other methods of financing health care (a report is due in November) and is helping to draft a bill that would create a task force to study how to implement a statewide single-payer system.

Future actions

Looking to the future, an advisory measure backed by the group will be on the November ballot in Corvallis. If approved by voters, it will direct the City Council to urge the Legislature to move ahead with universal health care.

Bobbi Hall, the current board chair of MVHCA, said the group is also working with its counterparts in the 20 or so other states with active single-payer movements. Vermont has already passed a version of universal health care, Hall noted, and the hope is that additional states will follow suit, building momentum for a national single-payer system.

In fact, the group's 25th anniversary celebration this Friday will double as a fundraiser for ColoradoCare, a proposed universal health care plan that will go before that state’s voters in November.

“We feel an obligation to help them,” Hall said. “We kind of feel that helping Colorado will be helping us.”

Mark Lindgren, a longtime MVHCA member who also serves on the board of Health Care for All-Oregon, likens the push for single-payer health care to earlier political struggles such as the fight for abolition and women’s suffrage. Like those earlier movements, he said, there will be many setbacks, but he’s convinced the cause will triumph in the end.

“I believe it,” he said. “It will be impossible till it’s not.”

Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

Anniversary party Friday

Mid-Valley Health Care Advocates will celebrate its 25th anniversary this week with music, dancing and a healthy dose of good, old-fashioned activism.

The party will take place from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Friday in Gatton Hall at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 4515 S.W. West Hills Road. There is no charge to attend, and everyone is welcome.

The Hilltop Big Band with vocalist Audrey Perkins will perform a variety of arrangements, and Mark Weiss will sing “The Health Care Blues.”

Washington Post correspondent T.R. Reid, creator of the documentary “Sick Around the World,” will appear via video and make an appeal for donations to support ColoradoCare, a universal health care proposal that will be on the ballot this November in his home state. All proceeds collected at the event will go to help fund the Colorado ballot measure campaign.

The event will conclude with the cutting of a birthday cake and more dance music from the Hilltop Big Band.

The group meets at 7 p.m. on the fourth Monday of every month at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis, 2945 N.W. Circle Blvd. More information is available online at