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Health care idea raises conflicts

City Commissioner Sam Adams is pursuing a noble goal as he attempts to connect Portland's working poor with greater access to health care.

We are skeptical, however, that a convoluted plan to assess a surcharge on some building contractors is the best way to deal with it.

Adams makes a persuasive case that the city has a role to play in educating businesses and their employees about health care options - from county health clinics to affordable, if basic, health insurance plans. The plain fact is that thousands of people in Portland are without health protection at all.

But it is a sizable leap from that generalized problem to the specific solution being discussed at City Hall. A committee formed by Adams seven months ago is working on a draft resolution - which is still months from adoption - that would impose a tax or surcharge on building contractors who do not offer health insurance to laborers. The money collected would be used to help fund county health clinics, which in turn would provide care to the contractors' workers.

There is some logic in pushing employers - contractors or not - to look for ways they can provide basic health care packages. As Adams says, most poor people work, and when employers don't pay for health coverage, society has to pick up the tab.

That argument breaks down, however, when it is applied to only one industry. The current proposal also raises a number of potential conflicts between union and nonunion contractors, between large and small businesses, and between minority-owned and nonminority-owned companies.

We suspect these conflicts will doom the idea altogether, but it would be a shame for this discussion to begin and end in such narrow fashion.

Adams is right - access to health care is a pressing concern. Nothing is wrong with the city prodding, educating and otherwise encouraging businesses to expand health coverage. The city should pull back, however, from punitive actions or showing favoritism toward companies that can afford health insurance over those that cannot.