MM Curator summary
In response to 115 deaths tied to an extreme heat wave, OR Medicaid will likely pay for window AC units moving forward.
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Sen. Ron Wyden pledges Medicaid funding for air conditioners during a press conference held near Lents Park on Aug. 16, 2021.
Following Oregon’s third heat wave of the summer, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden stood in the sun near Portland’s Lents Park Monday morning to announce his intention to fight for more hot weather resources for low-income individuals.
Many of the 115 people who died during Oregon’s extreme heat spell in late June were low-income individuals without air conditioning. At least seven lived in public housing and at least 19 in mobile home parks.
Residents who lived in buildings owned and operated by Portland housing authority Home Forward, where nearly all of the public housing deaths occurred, want the agency to provide air conditioning in each apartment. The roughly $200 price tag of a window unit can be far out of reach for the many public housing residents who live on slim disability or Social Security checks.
Michael Buonocore, the agency’s executive director, said that isn’t financially feasible.
Wyden, who in 2019 successfully pushed for a new rule allowing Medicare Advantage plans to cover fans, air conditioners and air filters for patients with chronic conditions affecting their need for clean, cool air, said he will fight to get that equipment distributed to those who need it.
“I will make sure there is help for folks on Medicaid,” Wyden said. “Air conditioning in a deadly heat wave is life or death. It is not just moral, but economically smart to avoid unnecessary hospitalizations or the tragedy of people dying.”
When asked specifically to respond to the Home Forward deaths, Wyden broadly stated that “every one of the deaths from the heat wave is a tragedy and preventable.”
Wyden said he plans to push for federal funding to pay for air conditioners for the county’s most vulnerable population and for shade trees to be planted in urban heat islands, such as Lents.
Under the Medicare Advantage rule Wyden pushed through in 2019, insurers are allowed but not required to cover air cooling systems.
“We got that (Medicare) law passed but a lot of the health plans didn’t get the communication from D.C.” that they should be covering air conditioner units, Wyden said.
In his new effort, Wyden wants to expand that allowance to all Medicaid patients, who he says are some of the state’s most vulnerable individuals.
Under proposed changes to the Clean Energy for America bill coming this fall, Wyden said there will be funding for outreach to inform both insurance providers and Medicaid patients about the available resource and how to utilize it. Wyden said while the bill will bolster funding for cooling equipment, it will be local organizations and grassroots efforts that will provide education about how to access the free air conditioners.
Home Forward residents say that in addition to being provided air conditioners, they should be allowed to install them. Currently, residents who live above the fifth floor are not allowed to install window units for liability reasons.
Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, said she wants to create rules that wouldn’t allow landlords to ban air conditioning units.
Given a future guaranteed to have more deadly heat waves as the climate crisis continues, Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said only the federal government has the resources to create the magnitude of change needed to prevent heat-related deaths in low-income homes.
Nicole Hayden reports on homelessness for The Oregonian|OregonLive. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Nicole_A_Hayden.