Rogue of the Week: State Rep. Jim Thompson

He really cares about improving health care for minorities. Until it matters.

In Oregon and across the country, research shows minorities experience worse results from health care than whites. One fix to this problem is "cultural competency" training, designed to make medical practitioners more aware of the causes of such disparities.

Studies show, for example, that doctors have historically been less likely to recommend that their Hispanic and black female patients stop smoking or get mammograms.

Gov. John Kitzhaber asked legislators to introduce a bill to ensure licensed medicos get regular training that would help them communicate better with minority patients. Washington and California have already passed such legislation.

On April 25, the Senate easily approved the bill. But when Senate Bill 97 reached the House, things turned bizarre.

On May 12, the House Health Care Committee approved the bill. Among those voting "yes" was this week's Rogue, committee co-chairman Jim Thompson (R-Dallas).

Thompson, a retired medical researcher and former executive director of the Oregon Pharmacy Association, knows the importance of improving communications with minority patients.

“Mistakes are expensive,” he says. 

On May 17, he took the unusual step of lobbying his colleagues through a formal "floor letter" that carried the endorsement of more than 100 organizations supporting the bill. SB 97, Thompson wrote, "will help address Oregon's persistent racial health disparities and lower costs through improved provider-patient communication…reducing costly misdiagnosis [and] incorrect treatments, and cutting down on unnecessary emergency room visits.” 

But when the bill came to the House floor May 18, all 29 of Thompson's Republican colleagues voted against it—and Thompson went along. (All 30 House Democrats supported it.)

Thompson's reversal is Roguish because he advocated so eloquently for the bill—and because the 64-year-old second-termer acknowledges he caved in to political pressure.

Thompson says his caucus wanted to send a message: Republicans feel that state agencies are manipulating the projected costs of many bills, and they made this measure an example. (The cost of SB 97 was actually labeled "minimal," and Thompson says he believes it would have saved taxpayers money overall.) 

Thompson reluctantly agreed to go along with his caucus. "When a caucus wants to go a particular direction," he says, "it may not be the smartest move to go your own way."

One veteran lawmaker, state Rep. Mary Nolan (D-Portland), says she cannot recall a member of either party supporting a bill with a floor letter and then voting against it.  

“Nobody does this,” Nolan says. “It would be like helping your friend build a house, then burning it down.”