Twenty-Nine GOP Lawmakers Ask Kotek to Veto Medical Interpreter Bill

It’s unusual for so many legislators to put their names on such a request.

Sen. Chris Gorsek was one of four chief sponsors of Senate Bill 1578. (Blake Benard)

Twenty-nine GOP lawmakers asked Gov. Tina Kotek on Friday afternoon to veto Senate Bill 1578, which would create a new system for scheduling and paying medical interpreters for Medicaid patients.

This year’s legislative session ended March 7, the same day SB 1578 passed both chambers. The governor has 30 days from the end of the session to either sign bills into law, veto them or, less commonly, let them become law without her signature.

The GOP lawmakers took what a legislative director for a former governor called the “highly unusual” step of collectively urging a veto.

“At best, SB 1578 is a costly solution in search of a problem,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter. “At worst, it is a bill that creates a redundant and inferior state-run healthcare interpreter scheduling system—with unknown costs—for the express purpose of helping a labor union achieve its objective of organizing the interpreter workforce and funneling state money to politically connected nonprofits that also act as activists for the Democrat party.”

As WW reported earlier, SB 1578 is unusual in a couple of respects. Unlike most bills, which are introduced at the behest of a committee, lawmaker, group or governor, SB 1578 was introduced “at the request of Lamar Wise, AFSCME.” (Wise is the statewide political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.) AFSCME won the right to organize a union for the more than 1,000 medical interpreters in a 2019 bill, the beginning of a multisession strategy.

Second, the bill requires the Oregon Health Authority, which administers the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s Medicaid program, to, according to a bill summary, “contract with a nonprofit to administer a management system for health care providers to schedule directly with qualified interpreters and process billing for services.” The nonprofit would also provide recruiting and training services.

Related: Seeking to Grow Membership, AFSCME Leverages the Legislature to Organize—and Possibly Help an Ally

In committee hearings, GOP lawmakers questioned the specificity of the contracting requirement, noting the bill described the characteristics of the nonprofit in a way that lawmakers said sounded very similar to Unite Oregon, a Portland-based nonprofit that, like the nonprofit described in the bill, works with “individuals from immigrant, refugee, low-income and rural communities and representatives of urban and rural regional councils of government.”

In response to lawmakers’ questions, Wise, the AFSCME political director, acknowledged his union works closely with Unite Oregon but said he expected OHA would hold a competitive process for the contract if the bill passed.

The bill did pass on the session’s last day, on a mostly party-line vote (16-12 in the Senate and 34-21 in the House), albeit with a vote explanation from one of the Senate “yes” votes, by Sen. Janeen Sollman (D-Hillsboro), who expressed “some trepidation” about the cost of the new system in a written vote explanation.

Senate Democrats have strongly defended SB 1578, saying it would reduce the exploitation of interpreters, dozens of whom testified in support of the bill, with many saying they receive only about one-third of the $60 per hour that the Oregon Health Authority pays for Oregon Health Plan patients who need language assistance. (The agency said it paid for 334,000 interpreter sessions last year.)

In their letter to Kotek, the GOP lawmakers reiterated criticisms that private companies that currently provide interpretation made in committee: that the state will be subsidizing a nonprofit to compete with them; that the new system may offer far fewer languages than the current system; and that the bill appears to be tailored to benefit an ally of AFSCME, itself a strong ally of Democrats. They also picked at a point that troubled some Democrats who voted for the bill—the potential costs of what the Legislative Fiscal Office described as the integration of the new interpreter scheduling and management system with existing OHA payment and data management systems.

“The ‘indeterminate’ fiscal impact statement is not serious,” the lawmakers wrote to Kotek. “Let’s be clear, this is a new state information technology project intended to compete with the private sector... As with every IT project the state has ever undertaken, there is undoubtedly a cost, and to be frank, it was probably a high cost that would have threatened the viability of the bill had the cost been fully accounted for and articulated in the fiscal statement.”

Kotek spokeswoman Elisabeth Shepard says the governor is still working her way through all the bills lawmakers passed and has made no decision on SB 1578. Senate Democrats did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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