Q&A: Project Access NOW CEO discusses efforts to support universal health coverage, community information exchange in Oregon
Project Access NOW, a nonprofit that works with Oregon’s coordinated care organizations and health systems, is focused on supporting legislation that would improve access to healthcare and social services for the state’s underserved patients.
In this Q&A, CEO Carly Hood-Ronick discusses the legislation the organization is advocating for, which includes bills that would establish a Universal Health Plan Governance Board and a Community Information Exchange Governance Board.
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State of Reform: Did Project Access NOW have any specific advocacy goals heading into the current legislative session? Were there any specific goals it identified that could help increase healthcare access for underserved individuals?
Carly Hood-Ronick: “Our full list of 2023 policy priorities [can be found here]. Specifically, we were focused on supporting legislation that would ensure all Oregonians have access not only to affordable health insurance coverage, but also to the medical care and health-related services they need to stay healthy.
To accomplish this goal, we were also focused on legislation that supports the critical role of community-based organizations, and on an improved health information data system that would allow those organizations to communicate efficiently to ultimately improve health outcomes for the communities we serve.”
SOR: Are there any specific bills Project Access NOW is supporting? Are there key provisions in those bills that put them in a higher priority bracket than bills that might be similar?
C H-R: “Project Access NOW has been closely tracking Senate Bill 704/SB 1089. [These bills] would establish a Universal Health Plan Governance Board, which would create a comprehensive plan for implementing a universal health plan in Oregon beginning in 2027. As a community organization attempting to fill the gaps in our current healthcare system, Project Access NOW believes that establishing this board represents the next critical step towards much-needed universal coverage in Oregon.
[The organization also supports SB 972]. Oregon currently operates on a ‘hybrid’ insurance marketplace system that utilizes that federal healthcare.gov site to allow residents to purchase insurance plans. This legislation would implement a transition from the federal platform to a fully state-based marketplace by 2026. This would create much-needed flexibility that would allow Oregon to make innovative changes in its health insurance landscape, such as [creating] a basic health plan or a universal health plan, and will allow the state to improve affordability and streamline enrollment.
[The organization also supports House Bill 3303]. As an organization that has built, maintained, and participated in small-scale community information exchanges, Project Access NOW is very invested in a successful community information exchange being implemented in Oregon.
We have partnered closely with Rep. Maxine Dexter (D-Portland) to support this legislation, which would establish a Community Information Exchange Governance Board to guide development of a statewide exchange allowing social service organizations, healthcare providers, and other stakeholders to efficiently, securely, and equitably share client information when needed, and make referrals effectively to other organizations.”
SOR: How would the bills the organization is advocating for help it be more successful and/or improve the health of its clients?
C H-R: “Project Access NOW serves individuals who have fallen through the cracks of our current healthcare system. As we take steps toward plugging those cracks with legislation like SB 1089 (establishing a Universal Health Plan Governance Board) and SB 972 (transitioning to a state-based health insurance marketplace), the lives of the individuals we serve will be materially improved as they begin to receive resources from the state that they currently receive from Project Access NOW.
This will ultimately free up resources for community-based organizations like Project Access NOW to serve more individuals and create new programming to address other issues in our healthcare system. For example, if a universal health plan was introduced in Oregon, the vast majority of the individuals who received donated specialty healthcare or health insurance premium assistance at Project Access NOW would no longer need those resources.
We often joke amongst our advocacy team at Project Access NOW that if we successfully meet our advocacy goals, we’ll put ourselves out of a job. This is obviously hyperbolic, because we also believe that there will always be a role for community-based organizations in the healthcare space. But the sentiment remains: in an ideal world, organizations like Project Access NOW wouldn’t be needed to fill gaps that should otherwise be filled by the healthcare system itself.
We believe that while providing services to individuals directly is critical on an immediate basis, addressing the systemic issues that create the need for those services is also an important piece of the solution, and that’s why we support legislation that will make those necessary changes.”
SOR: Are there any other initiatives that are a priority for Project Access NOW at this time?
C H-R: “Yes, in addition to advocacy and high-level, system-wide improvement in coordination with a variety of stakeholders, the bulk of our work is actually in providing direct service to the community. As state and federal changes in the healthcare environment occur, our frontline staff are available to help communities understand the changes, including how eligibility has evolved and how to utilize new benefits.
We are especially proud of our work around the COVID-19 public health emergency unwinding, and our ability to support Medicaid recipients as they navigate this change. Not only can we help individuals transition from the Oregon Health Plan to a marketplace plan through our Premium Assistance Program, we can help them pay for this new expense.
In addition, Project Access NOW coordinates donated care for those who can’t access insurance, provides health-related services on behalf of local hospitals and coordinated care organizations, and utilizes a team of community health workers to help especially vulnerable Oregonians navigate a complex healthcare system.
We have been around for more than 15 years doing this work and have continued to evolve our programs to meet community need. For anyone falling through the cracks of our healthcare system, Project Access NOW is here to help.”
This Q&A was edited for clarity and length.