Oregon Holds Health Insurance Lottery

Oregon is conducting a one-of-a-kind lottery, and the prize is health insurance.

The state will start drawing names this week for the chance to enroll in a health care program designed for people not poor enough for Medicaid but too cash-strapped to buy their own insurance.

More than 80,000 people have signed up since registration for the lottery opened in January. Only a few thousand will be chosen for the program.

"It's better than nothing, it's at least a hope," said Shirley Krueger, 61, who signed up the first day.

It's been more than six months since she could afford to take insulin regularly for her diabetes. That puts her at higher risk for a number of complications, such as kidney failure, heart disease and blindness.

Her part-time job leaves her ineligible for her employer's insurance plan and with too little income to buy her own.

An estimated 600,000 people in Oregon are uninsured, according to the Oregon Department of Human Services.

Those selected in the lottery will be eligible for a standard benefit program, which was once a heralded highlight of the Oregon Health Plan.

At its peak in 1995, the program covered 132,000 Oregonians. State budget cuts forced the program to close to newcomers by 2004, but it now has several thousand openings.

The program covers their most basic health services, medications and limited dental, hospital and vision services at little or no cost.

The health insurance lottery winners will be chosen in a series of drawings that could take a few months.

"This is such a wonderful opportunity," said Ellen Pinney, director of the Oregon Health Action Campaign. "We've heard absolutely no complaints, just a lot of hope that they are the ones who will be selected."

Advocates for the uninsured say the demand for the program underscores the state's need for health coverage.

"We have pretty much returned as a state, in terms the percentage of uninsured, to where we were in the late '80s when we created (the Oregon Health Plan standard benefit)," said Barney Speight, director of the Oregon Health Fund Board.

The board is supposed to come up with a plan to address health care access and coverage for Oregonians for consideration in the 2009 legislative session.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski considers the Oregon Health Plan a basis to build on, said Anna Richter Taylor, a spokeswoman for his office. The plan has been able to maintain its benefit package for people who are aged, blind, disabled, under 19, pregnant or receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

But providing coverage for a larger population is a goal that could take much longer to reach.

"It's a huge challenge for one session — it's probably going to be a sequential process," Richter Taylor said.